PARIS — Paris.-- The Italian electoral system is designed to produce governments incapable of governing. The weakness of Italian government, and its vulnerability to corruption, has two causes. The first is the historical weakness of central government in a country that was only unified in the 1860s, after centuries during which Italian political life was dominated by its rich and powerful provincial capitals, by the papacy and by foreign occupiers.
Between the collapse of the Roman Empire in the 5th century and the Risorgimento of the 19th century, which reunified the Italian states, Italians more often than not experienced government as a hostile power controlled by foreign interests. Hence national solidarity did not pass by way of the political institutions of society.
The postwar republic, which replaced Mussolini's fascist state, was deliberately given weak central powers, with parliament elected by proportional representation, in reaction against fascism. People continued to look to their families and local communities not only for security but also for personal and professional advancement. This has produced a political system pervasive ''arrangements'' by which each faction in society is co-opted into power and patronage relationships of constantly changing calculations and adjustments, resting on the complicity of all. The state has been turned into a patronage mechanism.
Such a system is easily exploited by the Mafia, the second of the obstacles to reform in Italy. The British writer Peter Nichols has described this criminal organization, undoubtedly responsible for the Falcone assassination -- among many other atrocious crimes -- as having its roots in two basic principles of life in the Italian south: ''the vendetta and the refusal to cooperate with the authorities.'' Both are products of life under foreign domination.
The vendetta responds to the lack of objective justice. When there is no law, justice is looked for in acts of personal revenge. The vendetta is a social institutionalization of revenge. The ''man of honor'' -- a title claimed even by American Mafiosi -- is one who supposes himself imposing a primitive justice through acts of violence.
The refusal to cooperate with the authorities originated in hostility to arbitrary foreign power and makes silence -- omerta -- an expression of true patriotism and of solidarity with one's fellow-members of an oppressed community. The modern Italian republic has never decisively distinguished itself -- at least in the peasant south of Italy and in Sicily, where the Mafia's power originates -- from the oppressive foreign governments of the past.
Today things are changing. That was demonstrated by the popular outrage manifest in Palermo at the funeral Monday of the five victims of the attack on Giovanni Falcone, the judge who was investigating the Mafia. (His wife and three of his bodyguards were also killed.) An unprecedented crowd of some 15,000 people, above all of young people, crowded Palermo's cathedral and its surroundings to mourn the deaths and shout insults and defiance at the officials come from Rome for the ceremony, held to be complicit in the Mafia's power.
The sermon of the cardinal-archbishop was uncompromising in its condemnation of the Mafia. It described the murders as ''an attack upon the state itself.'' This has been the conclusion drawn in Italy, that the Mafia now jeopardizes republican government. But the very fact that its power now tends to be identified with Rome -- with central government and the political parties -- contributes to weakening the state.
The Italians in 1948 created a stable republic -- glacially stable, since the Communist minority could never be given power. The dominant Christian Democratic Party therefore formed coalition after coalition, dependent upon increasingly complex arrangements or intrigues with the smaller parties, in a system incapable of reforming itself. Italy has had 51 governments in 46 years, and they have nearly all been alike.
The Mafia has been thought directly to control a million popular votes, and to exercise a strong influence over another 2.6 million. No one can today be certain how far its infiltration of the parties and of the apparatus of state has gone. Certainly the fact and timing of Judge Falcone's flight from Rome to Palermo on Saturday, made in a Secret Service aircraft, was betrayed to the Mafia.