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Italy at home and abroad

Too bad it customarily takes political bombshells to put Italy on the world's front pages. This is the case once more this week, and we confess to wishing the headlines of election upset and difficult change would not overshadow a few other things worth noticing.

Oh, yes, much rightful attention was paid to the rescue of that American general from a terrorist band a while ago. But back pages tend to be the home of less dramatic items like Italy's growing role on the international scene in recent years. Note its full-scale participation in Mideast peacekeeping despite questions at home about attacks on Italian troops; firm support for NATO's deployment of American missiles despite local Communist opposition (ostensibly directed at Moscow missiles, too); efforts at goodwill mediation in the conflict in the Horn of Africa. At home there remains an economic system that, for all its troubles, somehow seems to foster craftsmanship and small enterprise.

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Even the business-as-usual political uproar may be deceptive. On the brink of the elections Britain's weekly Economist was calling Italy the most politically stable country in Europe. (Some Italian commentators over the years have called it too stable or static even as the names of the players have changed.) Yet the results, surprising both press and pollsters, were interpreted by some as protesting governmental instability in Italian eyes - or possibly leading to instability as the unexpected outcome is adjusted to.

To be sure, there will be a challenge in negotiating an effective governing coalition as the Christian Democrats, dominating 43 previous governments, find themselves with a loss of about 5 percent while the runner-up Communists' smaller loss leaves them only 3 percent behind the Christian Democrats. But even with the addition of the Socialists, who registered gains, the left totals little more than 40 percent. Thus there seems small likelihood of the Communists achieving their new goal - not the unrealized ''historic compromise'' of joint rule with the Christian Democrats but the ''democratic alternative'' of joint rule with the Socialists.

Indeed, if the Socialists are properly included with the Christian Democrats and three other ''mainstream'' center-left parties, then the five as a whole retain virtually the same majority of some 56 percent that they had in the last election in 1979. The mix is different, the Christian Democrats may not be quite so dominating, but the potential for a coalition to maintain stability is there.

Why the voter slap at the Christian Democrats? Views vary. But domestic issues prevail. Some see the setback as punishment for high inflation or even punishment in advance for austerity measures. Yet the Republican Party, whose Mr. Spadolini won friends as prime minister, was the most notable vote gainer - and it favors austerity measures as tough as the Christian Democrats'.

The surprise election numbers will no doubt be long analyzed. But, on past performance, Italy will cope, whatever the pundits conclude.

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