THE rightist election victory in Italy at least has set a much-talked-of ``communist comeback'' in Europe in better perspective.
It also has served to focus European attention on what now looks like a much more likely challenge to established center parties from the opposite side of the political spectrum.
That challenge is rightist and nationalist, with both neo-Nazi and neo-Fascist trends increasingly manifest since last year.
In Italy, an openly fascist grouping is virtually institutionalized as a partner in a right-wing alliance that won a clear majority in last month's elections.
It was also a major setback for the Left, which may well set a general European pattern, above all for the former Communists.
Shortly after the Italian polls, the Communists managed a strong showing in elections in the Ukraine. In Eastern Europe, they did even better in Poland last September. Next month, in Hungary's elections, the Left may do likewise.
But the former Italian Communist Party - for years the most electorally credible in Western Europe - roundly upset all the preelection forecasts. Not only did it not run the expected neck-and-neck race with a very conservative alliance but lost to it in what was hardly a race at all.
The result can but lengthen a neo-Nazi shadow increasingly darkening German politics through the last two years.
The swastikas, Nazi uniforms, and salutes have too frequently become part of the scene for Chancellor Helmut Kohl to dismiss them as but evidence of the existence of a weak lunatic fringe.
Western Europe as a whole is already in varying degrees troubled by interethnic tensions and demagogic appeals to exaggerated nationalism.
The fascist salutes in Italy that hailed the victory for the Right in general and the National Alliance in particular will encourage similar trends in most European countries: in Germany or in France and Spain or in most of the erstwhile Soviet satellites in the East.
Ironically, Italy's rejection of a new, repackaged, more moderate Left looks destined to have a knock-on effect benefiting the Right - and the extremists - everywhere.
Hungary may be the first test case. There, the Socialist Party -
as the old Communist reformers call themselves - is still being widely tipped to match their Polish counterparts' emergence six months ago as the biggest party in parliament.
But, as campaigning for the first round of Hungary's May 8 elections gathers pace, the limelight is being taken by a populist nationalist expelled from the present government's Democratic Forum coalition for a provocative anti-Semitic article published last year. An equally sinister nationalism is shaping up around the ousted Premier Vladimir Meciar in Slovakia, where elections are due in late summer.
In Germany, Mr. Kohl's main challenge in October will still come from the Social Democrats (SPD) who, after 12 years out of office, are out to impress the electorate with a new, moderate image. Kohl recently suffered a ``winter of discontent'' in Germany's unexpected economic recession. But he can afford now to be upbeat with reports suggesting recovery is at hand (in east as well as west Germany).
As yet, there is no sign of the emergence of an organized extremist national counterpart to Italy's fascist group, and the overall pattern of Italy's voting will surely boost Kohl's belief that in due course the SPD's challenge will be turned. Goading the extremists
Nonetheless, events in Italy - even if a new government of the Right overcomes its internal conflicts of interests and does in fact manage to govern better than its corrupt predecessors - will also encourage the extremists.
In Eastern Europe, an older generation, together with those most pinched by economic change, may be expected to continue their protest vote for the communist status quo for some time. This year's elections should show for how long. Europe's young generation is less predictable. But it is worth noting that one-seventh of Italian voters supported the neo-Fascists, and that half of them were under 25.
Meantime, there are Zhirinovskys on either side of the old east-west divide - and fertile ground for them to exploit, as the recent wave of panicked Western legislation on immigration has just shown. Containing their appeal may be the paramount task for middle-of-the-road politicians as the European mainland moves right.