In Italy, 'non cambia niente'

Leslie H. Gelb

April 23, 1993|By Leslie H. Gelb

NON CAMBIA NIENTE," the street vendor answered when asked what would happen now that Italians have overwhelmingly voted to reform their political system. "Nothing will change."

His was a doleful, overly harsh and cynical judgment on this week's historic vote to cut down Italy's volatile 14-party system to about four parties and to make government more accountable, more efficient and more honest. But it was understandable among a people long plagued by massive political corruption and instability.

The referendum, coupled with the 1,500 investigations and trials under way on official thievery, will force Italian politicians to clean up their act -- but probably not that much. What we have here is lots of courageous judicial theater and profound voter protest, not a revolution. For a revolution, you need revolution.

Many here would like to believe that they have revolutionized Italy's politics. But they have merely discredited the old order with little preparation for a new one. They have chopped off the heads of the old established parties without destroying the parties themselves. And they have charged ahead to reform politics with little concern for reforming policies.

"I would say this to the reformers, who have won a good victory," said Giuliano Amato, the Socialist prime minister, feet up on the coffee table in his baroque office. "Please tell me what you will do now. How will you reform the welfare state? What will be your fiscal policy?"

What bothers the talented Mr. Amato -- who seems unlikely to keep his office -- and other good heads here is that the new parties emerging from the righteous rubble of reform will probably be merely larger versions of the old ones, still trapped by the need to form clumsy coalitions in order to rule, and still lacking a clear sense of how to fix the nation's mounting ills.

When and if the Parliament writes new voting rules, four party coalitions are likely to enter the lists.

First and foremost will be the Christian Democrats, who have run the country for most of the last 50 years. Many of their leaders and supporters are among the more than 100 members of Parliament, bureaucrats and top industrialists now under criminal investigation for bribery. The party is discredited and lacks a policy focus, but still has steady support in the South.

Second comes the Party of the Left, mainly Socialists and moderate ex-Communists. They have a small base of workers, as well as a large share of accused criminals. They seem destined for the devastating electoral fate of their French counterparts.

Third will be the new Northern League, headed by Umberto Bossi, a fiery demagogue who preaches extreme federalism. With the backing of small and medium-sized business owners and yuppies, he wants to separate the rich North from the rest of the country. It's far from clear that he can ever win more than about 15 percent of the national vote, but he's trying to expand his base. He's clever and dangerously unpredictable.

This leaves political space for a fourth party, which its aspiring founders call the Democratic Alliance. Led very loosely by Mario Segni, a former Christian Democrat, it provided the backbone behind this week's vote. Asked to explain what kind of new system he had in mind, Mr. Segni replied: "I can't say what it will be like, but it will be different."

Very few democratic movements created for the express purpose of electoral reform have ever established themselves as political parties. Like Ross Perot's minions, they exist mainly to advocate reform. After their reforms have been realized, or when they realize real reform is impossible, they vanish.

This party lineup does not augur well for Italians who yearn for good government fit to run the world's fifth-largest economy. But there can be no revolution without upheaval. And so far, the basically conservative Italians have stopped well short of that. Either there is more to come, which seems unlikely, or the cynical street vendor and the wise Mr. Amato are right, and little will change.

As in Giuseppe di Lampedusa's novel "The Leopard," which Italians are so fond of citing, leaders often appear to change everything while making sure that nothing important is changed.

Leslie Gelb is a New York Times columnist.

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