Old familiar ways plague the new Italian politics: Some 21 parties are busy splitting and clustering as landmark elections approach, writes Patricia Clough from Rome

ITALY HAS been plunged into its most crucial election campaign for many years in a state of bewilderment. The familiar old proportional voting system, which produced 52 governments but near-total immobility since the war, has given way to a British-style one which at last should enable voters to throw governments out from time to time.

But those who hoped it would produce simplicity will have to wait. For, instead of around a dozen parties, there are to date no fewer than 21, old and new, big and small, busy splitting and clustering like so many molecules. All say they stand for clean politics and efficient government - though anything else would be surprising after the corruption scandals. What else they want is unclear: leaders contradict themselves, strategies and allies change and political programmes are still thin on the ground.

At the same time, the parties are scrambling to find new, clean, attractive candidates. With less than eight weeks to go to the March 27-28 elections, television personalities, film directors, actors and actresses, sports celebrities, journalists, magistrates, professors and business people are being hastily head-hunted, though with what success is not yet clear.

Most of the inquisiti, members of the old guard who are under investigation for corruption and other crimes, are not attempting to run again. But there are still a sizeable number of what the weekly l'Espres so has dubbed the riciclati, people closely associated with the old guard who are recycling themselves under changed party names.

Despite the number of parties and grouplets, the political scene seems to be dividing untidily into three camps. On the far right, circling each other, are the former neo-fascists, the Northern League, and the new Forza Italia of the media tycoon, Silvio Berlusconi.

The former neo-fascists, trying to acquire respectability and break out of the political quarantine to which they have been subjected since the war, have changed their name to National Alliance and are declaring themselves Gaullists.

The effect is marred by diehards such as Carlo Tassi, who was persuaded with difficulty not to turn up at their congress last weekend in his fascist black shirt, only to arrive in darkest blue. Others still cannot kick the habit of breaking into the fascist salute. But their leader, Gianfranco Fini, is seeking to build bridges with Mr Berlusconi, espousing his Reaganite economic ideas and saying he would not mind seeing him as prime minister.

The Alliance's embrace, however, could be damaging for Mr Berlus coni's already fiercely criticised campaign. He, meanwhile, is getting on well with the Northern League, although its leader, Umberto Bossi, has warned that if he dares run candidates in the North, the League's own territory, 'we will tear him to pieces'.

The black hole which appeared in the centre of the political spectrum as a result of the implosion of the Christian Democrats in the recent municipal elections is being filled by a variety of groups. The main ones are the Popular Party, the renamed rump of the old Christian Democrats, and the Pact for Italy led by Mario Segni, a possible future prime minister. These two seem destined to work together.

The left seems positively united and harmonious by comparison with the centre and right. Achille Occhetto, the leader of the Democratic Party of the Left (PDS), has been working hard to weave alliances, realising that this was the only way of surviving. He was rewarded by the left's success in municipal elections. Nevertheless, there are strains between Communist Refoundation, the Greens, La Rete (the Network), and the more moderate Democratic Alliance, with some of his more left-wing allies trying to keep moderate ones out and vice versa.

None of the camps looks likely to win a majority. Polls put the left at around 36 per cent (20 per cent for the PDS), between 34 and 40 per cent for the right and some 23 per cent for the two centre groups. How this will translate into parliamentary seats under the new system is not known. But the centre parties appear likely to hold the balance and they are coming under strong pressure - which they are currently resisting - to declare which way they would go, left or right.

THE LEFT

Democratic Party of the Left (PDS): Successor to what was the West's largest Communist party and Italy's permanent opposition since the war, the PDS of Achille Occhetto (right) made big gains in mayoral elections last month.

Communist Refoun dation: Hardline core of the old Italian Communist Party that split off when the party changed its name to PDS and ditched Marxism in 1991. Led by Armando Cossutta, it is a possible PDS ally.

Socialist Party (PSI): The remains of the party that was in government for two decades under Bettino Craxi and collapsed because of the political corruption scandal. Led by Ottaviano Del Turco, the party is another potential member of Mr Occhetto's 'progressive round table' pact.

La Rete (The Network): Sicilian-based, anti-Mafia,

reformist party headed by Leoluca Orlando, Mayor of Palermo, a former Christian Democrat. Another possible Occhetto ally.

THE CENTRE

Popular Party: Launched from the ruins of the Christian Democratic Party, the main force in Italian government for four decades and, with the Socialists, the worst hit by scandal.

Apart from its leader, Mino Martinazzoli (right), leading lights include the Venetian reformist Rosy Bindi, one of the few prominent women in Italian pol itics. The Popular Party

is threatened by internal schism from members who call themselves 'neo-centrists' and oppose Mr Martinazzoli's overtures to the left.

Pact for Italy: The alliance formed by the former Christian Democrat Mario Segni, father of the 1993 electoral reform referendum which has given Italy a new majority voting system.

Mr Segni wants to gather centre and centre-right forces under the Pact's umbrella with a seven-point programme to keep Achille Occhetto's 'progressives' from coming to power.

THE RIGHT

Northern League (Lega Nord): The pro-autonomy movement which has become the biggest party in northern Italy. The leader, Umberto Bossi (right), recently watered down the movement's previously non-negotiable federalist platform in an attempt to win alliances with forces in the centre. Southerners accuse the League, which says the affluent north should not have to subsidise the rest of Italy, of racism.

Forza Italia (Come on, Italy]): The conservative movement founded by the media magnate Silvio Berlusconi, who has taken the title from the football terraces. Mr Berlusconi, owner of the Italian football champions

AC Milan and Italy's big private television networks, has resigned from posts in his companies to enter politics.

National Alliance: The grouping founded by Gianfranco Fini, leader of Italy's neo-fascist Italian Social Movement (MSI). It ran the left close in mayoral elections and was unexpectedly successful in municipal polls last year.

(Photographs omitted)

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