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Craxi and De Mita: Italy's odd couple

Both are balding and both love power. But aside from these two common traits, the two leading politicians in Italy's campaign for Sunday's general election couldn't be more different. Socialist Bettino Craxi is an oversized, overpowering, outgoing man from the northern capital of Milan. He wears a constant smile, speaks directly, and prides himself on acting forcefully. Christian Democrat Ciriaco De Mita is a thin, savvy lawyer from the southern hill town of Avellino. He always looks worried and distraught, loves to weave a verbal tapestry, and prides himself on his skill in shaping deals in smoke-filled back rooms.

These differences emerge clearly in public. Mr. Craxi is charismatic and comfortable on television, where he minces no words. He loves the trappings of the prime ministry, which he has occupied for the past 3 years, and through his powerful personality he dominates the Socialist Party, permitting no dissent. Political cartoonists often play on his name, Bettino, changing it to Benito, and portray him as a Mussolini.

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Mr. De Mita's hold on his amorphous Christian Democrat Party is much more tenuous, but he excels at extracting compromises from its many different factions. To De Mita, private power excercised inside the party is more important than the public limelight. Throughout his long political career, he has held only one public post, a brief tenure as minister of industry.

In the upcoming election, De Mita's task is to solidify his party's position as the country's No. 1 political force. Ironically, the Christian Democrat's strength is declining in its traditional southern base, where secularizing trends have taken hold, and increasing in the north, where voters view the party as the only viable counterweight to the Communists.

Craxi's Socialists are far less numerous than the Christian Democrats, with only about 11 percent of the vote. But they are growing stronger, especially in the south, where urbanization and industrialization are beginning to take hold. Despite its relatively small size, the Socialist Party forms the backbone of the so-called secular group, the small parties in between the Christian Democrats and the Communists on the political landscape. Because the Christian Democrats have only been able to rule in recent years in coalition with this secular group, many analysts believe that Craxi and De Mita will be forced to compromise.

``The two men hate each other,'' says Ernesto Galli Della Loggia, a history professor at the University of Perugia, ``but they have no choice except to govern together.''

Such a prospect hardly excites Prof. Galli Della Loggia.

``We don't have any statesmen. Craxi and De Mita are just party men without large vision.''

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