The Italian Revolution

WILLIAM PFAFF

April 22, 1993|By WILLIAM PFAFF

Paris. -- What is happening in Italy has been called a post-modernist revolution. This makes good sense if you say modern times began with the French Revolution. Since then, revolution has meant barricades and the masses of people in the streets. That is the opposite of what is going on in Italy.

In Italy the revolution has come from outrage inside the structure of the state itself, powerfully sustained by popular opinion and the press. The revolution was waiting to explode. That has been clear for years. There has been seething popular resentment at misrule by the political parties, and at the power of the Mafia, but this could find no satisfaction in the existing electoral system.

At last the system has burst. The corps of magistrates -- like district attorneys in the United States, but politically independent -- touched off the explosion. They discovered a banal case of political corruption in Milan which, tugged at like tugging a tangle of string, drew one case after another, bigger and bigger.

It led from money to power to crime, until finally, if the allegations made against the most powerful political figure in Italy, former Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, prove to be true -- revealing Mafia domination of the government itself, and the assassination of a leading figure of state, the former president of the Christian Democratic Party, Aldo Moro, supposedly on Mr. Andreotti's own orders.

The discovery of conspiracy and crime of this unimaginable immensity has left the Italians with no choice but to start over, with new institutions and new parties: in fact, to make a ''Second Italian Republic.'' All of this, of course, is much harder to do than to begin the revolution itself.

In a referendum Sunday and Monday the effort was well begun. Italians voted overwhelmingly ''yes'' for a series of reforms. The measures are themselves limited in effect, but the expression of voter intent was massive. The principal change will end proportional representation in the election of three-quarters of the Senate, and was voted by an 83 percent majority. This makes it morally incumbent on the lower house of parliament -- the powerful one, in the Italian system -- to end or severely limit the proportional method in its own election.

The evil of the proportional system is first that it maximizes the influence of marginal political groups (hence the paralyzing power of the religious parties in Israel, which has a pure proportional system). It also institutionalizes irresponsibility, nTC since no individual politician is accountable to the public. The public votes for the party, and the party nominates and controls the politicians. Hence the parties run the country, not the government, whose members are accountable to party leaders, not directly to the people.

The new senators will be voted by a simple majority. The same system -- or its French variation, which has a second run-off vote among the leading candidates when the first-round vote is not decisive -- is proposed for the assembly.

The interests at stake in the Italian revolution are enormous. If it is true, as alleged, that the Mafia not only has profited from corruption at every level of political and economic life in Italy but has been linked to the highest political offices, it is obvious that it will take an extreme effort to contain, and if possible reverse, the damage that has been done to its power over Italian public life and business and industry.

The Italian historian and former diplomat Sergio Romano compares what is happening today to the events of July 1943, when the fascist regime was overturned. Now, as then, no one can be sure what will come next. A changed electoral system, certainly. But after that? In 1943 and after, the Mafia's power -- which Mussolini had broken -- was restored. The fear of communism caused Italians to vote for a conservative coalition government -- the first in the series that have governed the country ever since.

The fundamental problem of separatism must be addressed. The division between the prosperous north of Italy and the still impoverished south is bigger, and more bitterly felt, than 30 years ago. The most dynamic political movement of the last two years has been the Northern League, which calls for an autonomous north.

Some new federal structure must be found, if Italy is not to break up. A strengthened presidency is needed, again probably on the French model. The Italians have only begun to address what it is they need to do to give themselves a Second Republic that works. But the beginning has been made, and it is a solid one.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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