WORLD

Italy’s search for stability

DAVID NORTH July 11 1983
WORLD

Italy’s search for stability

DAVID NORTH July 11 1983

Italy’s search for stability

WORLD

When Italian Socialist party leader Bettino Craxi plunged the country into a political crisis by withdrawing from the coalition government of Prime Minister Amintore Fanfani, most commentators held little hope that the resulting general election would produce stability. Italy’s complex proportional representation system has failed in successive elections to produce a clear-cut result. In addition to six governments in the past four years, a series of major scandals involving politicians further sapped voter enthusiasm. The campaign itself was marked by bitter political infighting

and the uncovering of new links between the Mafia and people in high places. When the votes were finally counted last week, the outcome seemed all too familiar: a looming coalition of five different parties at the height of an economic crisis. In the process, while stopping short of outright rejection, voters delivered a crushing blow to the Roman Catholic Christian Democratic party, which has headed 43 Italian governments since the Second World War. In a country in which a minute shift of loyalties is significant, no less than five per cent of Italy’s 44 million voters deserted the conservative Christian Democrats, reducing support for the party in the 630-seat lower house from a

1979 level of 38.3 per cent to 32.9 per cent. That narrowed the Christian Democrat lead over the traditional second-place Communists to a mere three per cent. In addition, four other parties that participated in the past six governments with the Christian Democrats— including Giovanni Spadolini’s Republicans—increased their seats.*

For the Christian Democrats’ 55year-old leader, Ciríaco De Mita, the result was a harsh blow. Conceded De Mita: “The vote expresses a protest, a lack of appreciation of [our] proposals.” But while his rivals fared better, none could claim an overwhelming advan-

tage. The powerful Communist party did better than expected, but its vote still fell from 30.4 to 29.9 per cent. The Socialists finished well short of their target of 15-per-cent support, which Craxi had hoped would give him a strong claim to the post of prime minister in a future coalition. Indeed, the chief effect of the election was to improve the standings of many of Italy’s minor parties, especially the neofascist Italian Social Movement of Giorgio Alimante, who claimed to have transformed nostalgia for Mussolini into a

*The top five finishers and their lower house standings: Christian Democrats (225), Communists (198), Socialists (73), Italian Social Movement (U2) and Republicans (29).

“new force.” The outcome will also make the task of forming a stable government even more difficult than in the past. The day after the results were declared, the Italian stock exchange registered an 8.3-point fall, a sure sign of uneasiness in the business community at the turn of events.

The intricacies of cabinet-forming when parliament reconvenes on July 12 will be overshadowed by the urgent need to tackle Italy’s pressing economic problems, including an inflation rate of almost 17 per cent and unemployment of more than two million. But that is unlikely to affect the jockeying for posi-

tion between the parties, at least five of which will be in the ultimate coalition. “You can bet that there will be even more squabbling than before,” said one Western diplomat.

On the surface, the Christian Democrats’ decline amounted to a repudiation of the coalition’s austerity program. But that analysis was weakened by the strong showing of former prime minister Spadolini’s Republican party. The Republicans, who favor monetarist policies, almost doubled their strength, winning 13 new seats and making significant gains in the northern industrial cities of Turin and Milan. By contrast, Craxi’s Socialists, who favor gradual expansion, registered only a

1.6-per-cent gain, to 11.4 per cent, though they picked up 11 seats in the process.

The intention of the voters, apparently, was to deliver a warning to the Christian Democrats, who now face an internal struggle. The party’s setback sparked calls for De Mita’s replacement. But the Christian Democratic leader seemed determined to ride out the storm.

At any rate, the party’s problems are greater than the performance of one man. In the immediate postwar years the Christian Democrats thrived as the principal bastion against communism in a country sharply polarized between religious and secular views. While the underlying division remains as strong as ever, Christian Democrat support has been eroded by the perceived ineffectiveness of an aging leadership in tackling the country’s deep-seated social problems, among them the poverty of the south. Not only that, but the party has been tainted by scandal, notably the corruption and influence-peddling in the notorious P(for propaganda) 2 Masonic lodge.

The Christian Democrats were further harmed during the recent campaign when more than 500 people, many of them prominent in public life, were arrested in a major Mafia mopping-up operation centred in Naples. Opposition parties were quick to revive charges of links between the Christian Democrats and the underworld. In the latest election the threat of a Communist takeover was also weakened by the Socialist party’s declaration in advance that it would not join a coalition of the left.

The Christian Democrats’ decline, and their resulting preoccupation with internal problems, open the door for potential partners to play a much stronger role in a future coalition. Both Craxi and Spadolini will be prime contenders for high office. However, Socialist leader Craxi may find advancement blocked, despite his moderate image and ambitions to lead Italy along the same social democratic path as neighboring Greece, Spain and Portugal. As Italy’s first non-Christian Democrat prime minister, twice during 1981 and 1982 Spadolini built a strong national following for his firm approach to the country’s problems and may well be preferred to Craxi. Still, with his narrow political base in a multiparty government, Spadolini would be hard pressed to formulate an agreed program and lead his country out of its current economic and political morass. If he fails, the resulting chaos could be the signal for a future advance by the neofascists who, with 42 seats, are now the nation’s fourth-largest national party. -DAVID NORTH in Toronto, with Sari Gilbert in Rome.

DAVID NORTH

Sari Gilbert