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Italy Sorts Itself Out

IT will be several weeks before all the implications of Italy's April 5 and 6 elections become clear. The parliamentary elections precede by just two months the June 3 election by Parliament of a new Italian president.

The first signs of where Italy is headed may be seen on April 23, when the current government resigns and the new Parliament meets to organize itself. Both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate will elect presiding officers. They and groups from each of the parliamentary parties will then consult with President Francesco Cossiga on who should be asked to form a new government.

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What is clear, however, is that Italian voters registered a strong protest against the party system that has ruled the country since the end of World War II.

The Christian Democrats, the dominant partner in all government coalitions since the war, took a drubbing. While party insiders expected a 31 percent share of the vote, they ended up with only 29 percent. The government coalition, which included the Socialists, Liberals, and Social Democrats, got only 48 percent of the vote. Can that diverse grouping attract another party to form a majority and agree on a program for governing?

The Italian Communist Party, once the strongest Communist party outside the ex-Soviet bloc, has become an orphan. It has split into two parties, the hard-line Communist Refoundation, which got about 5.5 percent of the vote, and the moderate Democratic Party of the Left (PDS).

The PDS is caught in a dilemma. It couldn't become the Socialist Party because there already was one. Party leaders perceive that many in the middle-class want an alternative liberal-leftist movement to support, but at the same time they must shake their association with the policies of the former Soviet Union and Italian Communist Party.

So the PDS has tried to identify with those in Italian society who feel unrepresented. Their opposition to the Gulf war has helped attract the support of left-wing pacifist Roman Catholics. Even so, the party was routed in the north by regional parties such as the anti-south, anti-immigrant Lombardy League. While the PDS got 18.5 percent of the vote in central Italy, it was only able to attract 11.5 percent in Sicily and Sardinia and 12.5 percent in the south, for a national average of 16 percent. For a party whose predecessor once averaged well above 30 percent, it was quite a comedown.

Many Italians hope that the PDS will be asked to join the government coalition in a break with past efforts to keep the Communists out of government. But with the PDS's longtime rival, Socialist Party leader Bettino Craxi, hoping to return as prime minister, such a deal may be impossible to pull off.

In the meantime, Christian Democratic Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti's hope of becoming the next president of the republic will surely be caught up in the coalition politicking.

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