ROME -- After two years of tumult that eroded confidence in national leadership, Italy turned toward a new and uncertain political future yesterday as President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro dissolved a scandal-tarred Parliament and a lame-duck government summoned voters to landmark elections.
The March 27 vote will mark the end of a closely held political system that has ruled Italy in increasing prosperity and corruption since World War II. Italians say the First Republic, born in the aftermath of war and fascism, is dead. In March, they will choose new faces under new rules to launch the Second Republic.
Climaxing weeks of maneuvering on a wet, blustery Sunday, Mr. Scalfaro asked apolitical Prime Minister Carlo Ciampi and his technocrats' government to remain in office until the vote.
Mr. Scalfaro rejected a resignation that Mr. Ciampi proffered Thursday, meaning that the former Central Bank governor can remain in office without having to seek a new majority.
But the Italian president agreed with Mr. Ciampi that it is time for elections, citing "unequivocal facts that require early dissolution of Parliament."
Among them, Mr. Scalfaro cited 80 percent support for electoral reform in a referendum in April and results in June and December municipal elections demonstrating that the Parliament no longer accurately represents political sentiment in the country. Four Establishment parties led by the Christian Democrats who hold the parliamentary majority, all of them tarnished by scandal, were overwhelmed in the mayoral votes by insurgents of the left and right.
Mr. Scalfaro also cited the demands of justice as one of his reasons for dissolving the Parliament: Nearly one-third of the 630 dTC deputies and 315 elected senators face charges ranging from corruption to Mafia association but are protected by immunity while Parliament is in session. About 3,000 businessmen, politicians and public officials have been ensnared so far in a two-year investigation into kickbacks for public contracts.
"The word now passes to the voters," Mr. Scalfaro said in a letter to parliamentary leaders decreeing the dissolution of the 21-month-old legislature.
A two-hour Cabinet meeting chaired by Mr. Ciampi yesterday set the March 27 date for the country's 48 million voters, triggering an immediate protest from members of Italy's small Jewish community and sympathetic opposition parties: Passover begins that day. The nation's 30,000 Jewish voters must choose between religious obligation and civic responsibility in deciding whether to vote.
"People will have to follow their conscience," said Tullia Zevi, president of the Italian Jewish community. "Even in Italy it is clear that although all religions are equal, some religions are more equal than others."
Italian national television said that Mr. Ciampi went to the home of Italy's chief rabbi last night to apologize.