Reconstruction begins of rotting palazzo of power: The winds of change are sweeping Italy. Now the country must decide how to build a new system, writes Patricia Clough from Rome

IN THE history of the Italian democratic revolution which scholars will one day write, this week will go down as the end of the beginning.

The palazzo of power, the rotting and disgraced political system, has collapsed, levelled by its resounding rejection in last weekend's referendum. Giuliano Amato, the plucky Socialist Prime Minister who for 10 months soldiered on at the head of the last old-style government while ministers fell by the wayside, has gone. Now, as President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro consults political leaders on the next move, the hard task of reconstruction has begun.

It has been a good week. For over a year Italians have been shocked, sickened and ashamed by the revelations of political crime and moral degeneration far worse than they ever imagined. Now they have every reason to be immensely proud. Quietly and responsibly, 37 million people - 77 per cent of the electorate - went to the polls and more than eight out of 10 voted for change.

It was an important moment not just for Italy. As the Italian post-war experience has shown how a democracy can putrefy, the referendum has demonstrated how a civilised nation can change its own political system constitutionally and without bloodshed. As the chief campaigner for reform, Mario Segni, points out, such changes usually happen only after wars or totalitarian rule.

The referendum was an exhilarating climax to a process which started, not with the political scandals of the past year, but some years back with the loosening - thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev - of the straitjacket which condemned Italy, with its huge Communist Party, to be ruled only by its non-Communist ones. Then came the 1991 referendum which gave voters greater choice as to who should represent them, and last year's general election, which dealt a massive body blow to the political parties that had ruled, and misruled, for so long.

It was these events, and the new mood in the country, which encouraged the magistrates to start probing the almost taboo area of political corruption and the results, in turn, intensified the demand for change.

All this may prove to have been the easy bit. The voters have now ordered parliament to produce a majority-system electoral reform plan. But what form this should take is disputed. Despite their protestations of wanting change, both the discredited old-guard parties, who retain a majority in parliament, and the smaller opposition ones, have no interest in producing a system which will threaten their survival.

The overwhelming demand for a majority system is a reaction to the ultra-proportional system of the past (although this is not solely to blame for Italy's woes) - which in turn was a reaction to the fascist one- party state that went before. But such a system, particularly the British one, is ill-suited to the Italian political scene with its many parties. To avoid disaster, some political leaders are calling for the formation of broad-based political parties on the lines of British or American ones, but Mario Segni's Democratic Alliance, intended to become such a party, is still at an embryonic stage.

Mr Amato and the former Communists' leader, Achille Occhetto, have called on the Italian left, ranging from the hardline Communists to the Social Democrats and Greens, to unite for the first time. But many years of rivalry will be hard to bury.

As far as leadership goes, the former Socialist prime minister, Bettino Craxi, has sneered that the future is a vacuum. Certainly there are no figures of great stature and experience waiting to take over. But things are changing fast. Already on the evening of the referendum results and in parliament during Thursday's debate on the next government, it was new, or relatively new faces that commanded attention: most of the old ones had vanished.

(Photograph omitted)

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