AFTER 15 unsuccessful votes, Italy's parliamentarians finally agreed May 25 on a president.
He is Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, a former education minister and conservative politician widely respected outside his Christian Democratic Party for his integrity.
Mr. Scalfaro, the Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, was elected with the help of the Christian Democrats, the Democratic Party of the Left (PDS), the Socialists, the Social Democrats, the Liberals, the Greens, and two other small parties.
"He's a very esteemed and respected person," says a spokesman for the small Liberal Party.
The election of Scalfaro is a first step toward resolving Italy's political crisis. But it will be weeks before the country has a new government. Scalfaro's first task will be to consult with the leaders of Italy's various political parties and then nominate the country's prime minister.
The prime minister will begin his own consultations with political leaders and will choose the parties that will make up the new coalition government.
Significantly, the small Republican Party, which wants a government of "experts" (as opposed to political appointees), opposed the election of Scalfaro.
"To vote for Scalfaro means to vote to keep that system which [PDS leader Achille] Ochetto promised in the electoral campaign he would fight against," Republican leader Giorgio La Malfa told the Italian press. "I think he'll have a difficult time explaining this choice to his constituents."
THE presidential election was given a decisive push by outrage over the May 23 assassination in Palermo of Giuseppe Falcone, a Sicilian magistrate known for his courage and diligence in prosecuting Mafia figures. In 1987, Falcone succeeded in sentencing 338 gangsters to long prison terms, in the largest judicial attack ever on La Cosa Nostra.
Falcone was killed when a ton of TNT in a tunnel under the road exploded as his motorcade drove by. His wife and three bodyguards also died. The operation was so well planned that many say the Mafia had infiltrated Falcone's ranks.
Anger and grief over Falcone's death run deep. Many in Palermo feel the attack occurred because a weak central government has not done enough to stop organized crime.
"The Mafia is a panther. Agile, ferocious, with the memory of an elephant," Falcone warned in a newspaper interview four days before his death. "The enemy is always there, waiting, ready to strike. But we can't even agree on the election of the president of the republic."
Scalfaro succeeds Francesco Cossiga, a political foe, who resigned April 25, saying he lacked a political mandate in the wake of parliamentary elections earlier in the month which dealt heavy blows to the ruling coalition and, by extension, to Italy's current political structure.
Italy's three main parties - the Christian Democrats (DC), the Socialists, and the PDS - all lost support in the vote.
It was not the DC alone that was hurt by the latest election. The PDS, which is the former Italian Communist Party, managed to retain its historical second place with 16.1 percent of the vote, but was down 10.5 percent from the days when it bore the name Communist. The Socialists came in third with about 13.6 percent, down 0.7 percent; the party had hoped to beat the PDS.
"The results of the election are the offspring of the fall of the Berlin Wall," says Nino Cristoferi, undersecretary to Mr. Andreotti. The poor showing of the DC, he explains, is in part because many people in northern Italy who voted for the party for its anticommunist stance felt free in the new political environment to vote for the Northern League, a regional party opposed to government financial support of the less-developed south.
But Mr. Cristoferi plays down the importance of the election results for the DC. "It's still the first party," he says with a smile.