As Italian voters go to the polls this weekend to form their 44th postwar government, the biggest point of speculation is not which way they cast their ballots but how many ballots will be cast.
Perhaps for the first time, the indecisio or disinterest of the voting public is obvious. Campaign rallies no longer draw huge crowds or cause riots and candidates seem to prefer television exposure on Italian state and new private channels.
The press and political observers have predicted the election will result in a coalition of the five main center-left parties. It would be dominated by the Christian Democrats (who won 38.3 percent of the vote in 1979) and the Socialists (9.8 percent).
Though most of the issues are predictable, a few notes of change have crept into the campaign.
There is little surprise that the country's limping economy concerns voters. Inflation is running at 16 percent. Unemployment, which has reached the 3 million mark - well over 10 percent of the work force - is another bone of contention, especially for the leftist parties.
And a historic agreement between Italian workers and Christian Democratic Prime Minister Amintore Fanfani's government early this year - which would have halted, at least temporarily, increases in indexed wages - is in danger of collapsing. Strikers are demanding their union contracts, which have fallen due, be renewed.
Added to these issues, which plague Europe in general, is Italy's position in NATO.
In a recent television pre-electoral debate, Communist Party leader Enrico Berlinguer was confronted with a discrepancy in the Communists' party line on NATO and the peace movement.
Berlinguer was reminded that his party had declared itself amenable to the NATO umbrella in the early 1970s when it was trying to hammer out a possible Christian Democrat-Communist alliance.
Although Italy's Communist Party is the largest in Western Europe (winning 30 percent in the last election), it has grown up in what is also one of NATO's strongest allies. So from its position as a firm anti-NATO party after the war, the Communist Party has become, if not a supporter, at least no opponent of NATO.
Today the Communists are also the prime supporters of the Italian peace movement and they favor dismantling the proposed Comiso base in Sicily, where 112 United States cruise missiles are scheduled to be deployed early next year.
Mr. Berlinguer replied that his party would support NATO as long as both NATO and the Warsaw pact confronted each other, since both umbrellas were necessary evils as long as either existed. The Communist Party proposes the suspension of work on the Comiso base where US personnel have already arrived, and reduction and eventual destruction of Soviet SS-20 missile bases.
This, according to the Communist Party, is the groundwork necessary for further disarmament negotiations, and not the Geneva conference between the US and Soviet Union.
The would-be allies in the Communists' proposed ''alternative government'' - the tiny Proletarian Democracy - find this altogether too conciliatory and would like to see Italy out of NATO altogether.
On the other side of the political spectrum, the Christian Democrats, who are expected to receive 36.8 percent of the vote, according to a recent article in the daily La Repubblica, are trying a new approach under their new party secretary, Ciriaco de Mita.
They are confronting their electorate with hard-line economic measures against inflation and low production. Most party leaders look longingly at the British election results, where voters accepted Mrs. Thatcher's painful economic policies with equanimity.
''The lesson from England,'' noted an editorial in the conservative daily Il Tempo, ''is that the English have voted with an overwhelmingly majority for the government which imposed austerity on them.''
Despite the Christian Democrats' power, the cornerstone for any kind of coalition is the Italian Socialist Party, under the ambitious leadership of Bettino Craxi. The La Repubblica poll showed 12.8 percent favored the Socialists , just under the 13 percent Craxi is seeking to help fulfill his ambition to become Italy's first Socialist leader.
On the question of missiles, Craxi declares his party in favor of eventual disarmament - but after negotiations, and not to the point of opposing the installation of Euromissiles.
The Republican Party is expected to lure some antimissile voters away from the Communist Party to the center-left coalition. After two terms as prime minister, Republican Party leader Giovanni Spadolini, according to La Repubblica , can look forward to an increase in his party's votes from 3 percent to about 5 percent.