WHEN is a resignation not a resignation? When it happens in Italy, seems to be the wry point of view here.
Although Prime Minister Lamberto Dini stepped down at the end of last year, saying his technocratic government had completed its tasks, President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro rejected the resignation. So Mr. Dini, a former Bank of Italy economist, remains on the job.
Mr. Scalfaro's logic apparently is that Italy, which has a 50-year tradition of revolving-door governments, needs someone at the helm as Italy assumes its six-month presidency of the European Union (EU) this month.
Dini opened a parliamentary debate on his government's fate Tuesday evening, in which he stressed its accomplishments and the responsibility Italy had toward its EU partners.
He also defended himself from charges that his staying on was a move to keep Italy from holding early elections. In refusing the resignation, Scalfaro chose to avoid a government crisis, he said, to give Parliament an opportunity to debate the next step.
''The government never acted looking at how long it would last,'' said Dini, who succeeded Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi one year ago. ''To the contrary, we have several times voluntarily put the government's survival at risk [in confidence votes] so as to obtain the approval of measures essential for the country.''
Dini then suggested that Parliament has three options. The first is to reach broad agreement on constitutional reforms and create a government for the transition period. This indicates the government is taking seriously calls to rewrite the Constitution. After years of corruption scandals, many politicians would like to see reforms that would guarantee a stable government and decentralize power. The hitch is that nobody agrees on the specific reforms or how to make them.
IN past weeks, Italy's political parties seemed to have rejected joining together to support a common government. Such a government, many argue, could amend the Constitution to introduce federalism or even direct election of the prime minister.
Some politicians, however, particularly those of the Northern League, a regional party in the prosperous north, would like to see a Constituent Assembly elected from across the political spectrum that would rewrite the Constitution. Those who object say that those who do the rewriting might include neo-Fascists. The current Constitution was written by the anti-Fascist resistance about 50 years ago.
The second option, guaranteeing a European-oriented government for the duration of the EU presidency, would therefore seem both feasible and responsible. The parties that support this option include the Democratic Party of the Left (the ex-Communists) and the Popular Party (a part of the ex-Christian Democrats). But they alone don't form a majority.
This leaves the last resort, early elections, which also present a problem. Italy reformed its electoral law before the 1994 vote so that 75 percent of the members are elected with one trip to the polls (which produces large coalitions), while 25 percent are elected under Italy's old proportional system, which spawns a dozen or so small political parties.
The result has been a Parliament in which the governing majority is paper thin, hardly putting an end to instability. Any new Parliament would likely face the same problem.
No one seems to deny that another electoral reform is needed to abolish the mixed system. But how to do it? Some politicians favor a primary and final election, as in the United States; others favor the existing single turn at the polls, as in Britain; still others reject the two-party system that is struggling to emerge and want to return to the proportional system.
Only the Communist Refoundation and the right-wing National Alliance seem to want to vote now. ''As things stand, none of the three hypotheses presented enjoys a parliamentary majority,'' reported the daily La Repubblica yesterday. ''In short, everything is abysmally uncertain.''