After 50 Years, Italy Steps Toward Stability

THE 55th time's the charm. Italians, who have endured that many different governments since World War II, may finally enjoy unheard-of stability.

Former Communists, who form the bulk of Italy's center-left Olive Tree alliance, broke through a half-century in the political wilderness when Italians voted the Olive Tree into power in the April 21 elections.

"This is the first change of government in Italy in the postwar period," says Paolo Flores d'Arcais, a political commentator and editor of Micro Mega, a left-wing journal.

For almost 50 years the Christian Democratic Party ruled with coalition partners and excluded the Italian left from the government. The right could always play on the public's fears of the then-Communist Party taking power. But this time, similar warnings by the right had little impact as the ex-communist Democratic Party of the Left stepped toward the middle ground.

Financial markets, overjoyed with the prospect of a stable government, soared. The stock market rose almost 5 percent in one day, and the exchange rate of the lira against the mighty Deutsche mark dropped to almost 1023, a level last seen 16 months ago.

The victorious left was led by coalition-builder Romano Prodi, an economist and a reassuring figure to Italy's business community, who is slated to be the next prime minister. In addition to stability, he promises policies to combat unemployment and reform of Italy's system of government.

Italy has seen sweeping changes in its political landscape since the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Italy's Communist Party, which was Western Europe's largest, recast itself in 1991, and the Christian Democrats crumbled after a wave of kickback and corruption scandals this decade.

Mr. Prodi's coalition reflects many of these changes, grouping ex-Communists, the Greens, left-leaning members of the ex-Christian Democrats, and a party formed by outgoing Prime Minister Lamberto Dini.

Although the coalition enjoys a majority in the Senate, it can only pass legislation in the Chamber of Deputies with the support of either the Communist Refoundation, a hard-line splinter group of the old Communist Party, or the regional Northern League.

Before the election, the Refoundation promised to give the Prodi government an initial vote of confidence and then return to its historic role in the opposition. But since the vote, they have indicated that they may be more cooperative.

Prodi and his allies expect that they will be able to reach agreement, sometimes with the Communists, sometimes with the League, on each piece of future legislation, thus guaranteeing governability.

This approach has its skeptics. "I don't really feel that they can govern," says Sergio Romano, a history professor in Milan and an former Italian ambassador to Moscow. "They must rely on the Refoundation's votes, and that is going to cause problems sooner or later."

The big loser in the April 21 vote was former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, the head of the center-right coalition and a media magnate. "Berlusconi has failed in creating a large moderate-conservative party. He has definitely failed, and I think he should go," Mr. Romano says.

In 1994, Mr. Berlusconi headed a controversial government characterized by bitter confrontations with the opposition and with his coalition partners. His opponents harped on the conflict of interest between his roles as political leader and big businessman. Now he faces a government led by his political foes, whom he has frequently and indiscriminately called "Communists."

Many analysts here say the Italians voted down Berlusconi's coalition precisely because of its confrontational and even arrogant style. Berlusconi responded to the defeat by saying he would lead "a serious, calm, constructive opposition" to the new government.

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