Disgraced party seeks new image: Patricia Clough examines Italy's Christian Democrat survival plan

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ROME - The once-dominant Christian Democrat party, now disgraced, is to be asked to change its name and identity like the Communist parties it fought for half a century.

Mino Martinazzoli, its secretary who had the - so far - unsuccessful task of cleaning up and relaunching his scandal-ridden party, is expected to propose to fellow leaders today that the party transform itself at a constituent assembly next month.

The taciturn Mr Martinazzoli said yesterday he would propose that the assembly should decide on a new name, new strategies, programmes and a new shape to the party. He is expected to suggest the name 'Centro Popolare', which recalls the name 'Partito Popolare' it bore before the Second World War, and stakes out its position in the centre of the political spectrum.

His right-hand man, Pierluigi Castagnetti, had said on Wednesday that the DC 'will dissolve itself and give birth to a new experience'. His remark caused a sensation, with banner newspaper headlines and strong objections from Christian Democrats, including all members in the Senate. But Mr Martinazzoli said yesterday he had no plans for dissolution. 'We intend to renew ourselves without reneging on the past . . . The newspapers are talking about death, I'm talking about life,' he said.

His decision, which immediately aroused controversy within the party, was precipitated by the worst results in its history in this month's municipal elections. The party, which has governed Italy since 1945, had reached the second round in only 61 of the 145 towns and cities that voted last Sunday and won in only nine of them. It suffered mass defections in the north, where the Northern League has far outstripped it. Although it is still the biggest single party in the south, it was new and often left-wing alliances that won.

Fearing, for the first time, that the party might disappear completely, some regional leaders have been demanding that it 'close down' while there is something to close and the faithful - but not the scandal-tainted ones - found something new. The danger of splits is looming: the Veneto branch is planning to dissolve itself tonight and found a new party. Other regions are thinking of doing the same while the left and moderate wings of the party are drifting apart.

Whatever happens at the assembly, it will mark the end of an epoch in Italian history: the post-war period, for better or worse, was inextricably bound up with this dominant Catholic party. The DC, with its smaller coalition allies, was the bulwark against the large Communist party, it kept Italy in the West and enabled it to become rich.

But it also cultivated the practice of clientelismo: favours and string-pulling in exchange for votes. It used state and public organisations as a source of patronage. Because there was no conceivable alternative it also grew corrupt and part of it, it is alleged, even connived with the Mafia.

Now, with no Communist threat, there is one big reason less to vote Christian Democrat. And although the Church still, though increasingly hesitantly, urges 'Catholic unity', active Catholics are defecting to new groupings such as the left-wing La Rete or the reformer Mario Segni's Democratic Alliance, both of which have a Catholic component, or to the Northern League, which is beginning to develop one.

Leading article, page 21