Italy: Back to Go

March 26, 1994

Italy's parliamentary election tomorrow and Monday will create a new government and a new politician situation. It must. The old structures disintegrated. Just as the election of 1948 determined the course of Italian politics for the next 46 years, the election of 1994 must do something similar.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and Cold War made the once-mighty Communist Party look foolish, but also destroyed the great appeal of the Christian Democrats, which was to stop the Communist threat. The corruption investigations of the past two years, implicating 400 parliamentarians and five prime ministers in crimes ranging from kickbacks to murder, did in the Christian Democratic Party. It had ruled Italy since 1945 and brought (at least, the North) unprecedented prosperity. The Socialist Party, which went from opposition to establishment, is virtually gone as well.

In this vacuum, the Communists under party leader Achille Occhetto traded in the hammer and sickle for an oak tree symbol and their old name for the Democratic Party of the Left (PDS). In a fatal miscue, they made an alliance with hard-left parties instead of centrists. Only a few months ago, the PDS looked ready to achieve what eluded its predecessor: national power.

To forestall the unthinkable, a self-made media monopolist, financier and soccer team owner, Silvio Berlusconi, formed a party called Forza Italia ("Go, Italy!"). Instead of issues, this party offers promises, slogans and celebrities. Now, it looks to be an equally unthinkable winner. But it, too, made an unhappy alliance.

One of its partners is the Northern League, which is either decentralist or secessionist, wishing to free the wealthy north from the burden of of the impoverished south. The other is a group of open neo-fascists now called the National Alliance. What ideas do the Forza Italia, Northern League and National Alliance share? Only the single idea of coming to power.

The Catholic Church is thrashing around in search of the combination of conservative social issues (anti-abortion, pro-private school) and welfare economics of the Christian Democratic Party. Christian Democrats have emerged from the ashes as the Popular Party which, however, is not popular. About the only thing that might stop Mr. Berlusconi is a desperate rumor campaign charging Mafia influence in his companies, which he denies.

Italy has severe problems. Unemployment is 11 percent and formerly respected institutions are despised. The church tolerated the corruption gripping the Christian Democrats for too long. The protest vote is going to carry, but whether the protest of the left or of the right, is hard to tell. Even the opinion polls are unreliable. The old Italian politics is dead; the new is struggling to be born.

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