The success of the Democratic Party of the Left's candidates in the five main cities and an overwhelming majority of seats in new town councils up and down the country have made the PDS, as it is now called, the most likely party to rule after the general elections expected early next year.
But it will rule with its left and centre-left allies, for the party has shrunk considerably since its painful metamorphosis from Communism to a reformist socialist party, and its accompanying schism, in 1991.
The PDS is now a long way from its Communist past when it was condemned, because of the East- West stand-off, to permanent opposition. It is a member of the Socialist International, it is comparable to other European left-wing parties and, under its leader Achille Occhetto, moving ever closer to the centre of the political spectrum.
It has sloughed off its old ideology and proposes to achieve social equality and freedom by pragmatic means. Mr Occhetto said in March this year: '(We do not want to) abolish the market to install socialism but to use and govern the market to achieve socialism, to use and govern the market to achieve a society of free and equal people.'
It needs to clarify its economic policies, the daily newspaper La Stampa commented yesterday, before it makes a bid for power. But it has already renounced the scala mobile, the indexing of wages to inflation; has proposed cutting the state deficit by issuing more government bonds - although this clashes with its call for more investment in industry - and is cool towards privatisation.
Mr Occhetto yesterday sought to reassure the world and particularly the financial markets by telling a press conference that a left-wing government would continue the economic policies of the Prime Minister, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi. It will also aim to reduce public debt, he said. Mr Occhetto himself is now looking more and more like the next prime minister, although the speed and unpredictability of change in Italy make nothing certain. He agreed on Sunday night that he would be the 'natural candidate', but added that if the PDS has to form coalitions with other major parties then there might be other possibilities.
It was certainly a welcome vindication for a leader who has been mocked within his own party in the difficult years of its transformation. He was hated for drastically slimming down the party's huge machine of 2,000 people as income from various sources, including, it is believed, trade and other deals with the Soviet Union, dwindled.
Mr Occhetto's Achilles' heel, however, could be corruption investigations. PDS politicians are under investigation in Milan and magistrates are probing suspect Swiss bank accounts and allegations that the PDS, too, was taking kickbacks. But the extent of the alleged corruption is nothing like that associated with the former ruling parties.
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