NOW that the government of Italian Prime Minister Giovanni Goria has fallen for the third time since its installation last summer, it seems extremely improbable that Humpty Dumpty can be pasted together again. Though the country will pass through a period of increasing instability for another year, crucial changes taking place beneath the surface of Italian politics may soon produce a showdown among the major forces:
Recent governmental weakness does not signal a permanent relapse to Italy's fabled instability.
There has been a qualitative change in Italian politics since Bettino Craxi's record tenure as prime minister.
The two major Italian political parties, Christian Democratic (DC) and Communist (PCI), are declining rapidly, leaving Mr. Craxi's Socialists (PSI) more room to maneuver.
As prime minister, Craxi ended the so-called consensus politics that masked a Christian Democratic/Communist entente. This unofficial alliance arose from a stalemate that made it impossible for Christian Democratic governments to act decisively because of deference to Communist strength, while the PCI allowed passage only of legislation that suited it under conditions it dictated. By successfully taking strong action, Craxi proved that important measures could be taken without or against the PCI, thus breaking the politics of paralysis.
Since the summer, two major developments have reinforced Craxi's dominant position in Italy. First, the Christian Democrats, Italy's largest party, have slipped into chaos. Secretary Ciriaco De Mita's struggle to modernize his organization by liberating it from overbearing Vatican influence has failed.
As a result, pressure has mounted on Mr. De Mita to leave the secretary's post for the prime ministership - a classic maneuver the Christian Democrats employ to dump nettlesome secretaries. A weak De Mita government would linger for about a year, when a decent interval from the last elections will have passed and new early elections could occur.
The second development: continued communist erosion. Having also proved themselves unable to confront Craxi's revived socialism, the Communists have lost both their political initiative and cultural hegemony. Most recently, Mikhail Gorbachev's rehabilitation of Nikolai Bukharin touched off a great debate on Italian Communist leader Palmiro Togliatti's support for Stalin.
In response, one Socialist leader told me, the Communists ``just stuttered'' and went on the defensive. As usual, the Communists cannot move too fast on denouncing their own heritage, because too many older party members object.
The result: apparent political collapse. In December, an Interior Ministry poll reported that the Communist share of the vote would drop from 26 to 21 percent, while the Socialist share would rise to 17 percent. Since then, the situation for the Communists has worsened.
This desperate situation explains the dramatic mid-February Communist move - proposing a reform government with the DC and Socialists which would have their old nemesis Craxi as prime minister.
The Socialist leader rejected this offer out of hand, with good reason. Such a coalition would make him a prisoner of larger but declining political forces. Furthermore, Craxi's vow to reverse the Italian anomaly of a large Communist and a smaller Socialist organization has not yet been realized.
In addition, Craxi has made it plain that no strong government can emerge without guarantees to carry out a series of Socialist-inspired institutional reforms that would make Italy more stable and more responsive to the people. For over 40 years, both the DC and PCI have failed to act on reforms of this kind, on which the country agrees. In December, Socialist pressure produced an agreement in principle with the DC and PCI on the reforms, but the DC crisis sabotaged the accord.
Most Italian observers deny the possibility of new elections this year, emphasizing that the last ones occurred too recently, and that scheduled elections for the European Parliament make 1989 an ideal time to hold them. Despite this reasoning, however, the new legislature's inability to produce cabinets that last more than weeks may make elections inevitable in 1988. Whether they favor an early or later date, Craxi's Socialists may find in the elections their best hope of renewing Italian politics.
Spencer Di Scala is a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.