As Italy embarks, once again, on a long and bruising general election campaign, there is an pervasive sense of deja vu. Less than two years after Silvio Berlusconi swept confidently into power in March 1994 with his promises of wide-ranging reform, the country is lumbered with many of the same problems it had then, and almost none of the solutions: the same unsatisfactory voting system, the same conflict of interest between Mr Berlusconi's media empire and his political aspirations, the same uneasy feeling that the collapse of the old political order has left a void, and that nothing substantial has yet arrived to fill it.
The main difference this time is that Italy cannot afford to have history repeat itself. The collapse of Mr Berlusconi's volatile centre-right coalition after seven months, and the long death-rattle of the fragmented parliament that brought it into being, have revived the worst memories of revolving- door governments and Byzantine power-broking.
The fact that the April 21 elections have been called at all is already an admission of defeat. It follows failed attempts to reform the system first under the outgoing prime minister, Lamberto Dini, and his short- lived successor designate, Antonio Maccanico. It may further jeopardise Italy's chances of staying in the European mainstream, and could pose a serious threat to the country's democratic well-being.
The instability is far graver now than it was under the so-called First Republic, the patchwork of Christian Democrat-led coalitions that took the country through the Cold War. Then, at least the chaos took place within the framework of an idiosyncratic kind of one-party rule; now the system is in freefall. "We don't yet have a new ruling class," Gianni Agnelli, the outgoing chairman of Fiat, said last week. "We have a political system that is no longer capable of producing one."
The one sign of progress since the collapse of the Berlusconi government has been a push by the country's fractious political parties to coalesce around two main blocs: the centre-right Polo della Liberta', or Freedom Alliance, led by Mr Berlusconi and the reformed neo-fascist leader Gianfranco Fini with support from conservative former Christian Democrats; and the centre-left Ulivo, or Olive Tree, made up of the main left-wing party, the PDS, and a sprinkling of environmentalists, independent leftists and progressive former Christian Democrats.
The big problem, though, is that neither bloc is entirely acceptable to Italian voters. The centre-right seems suspiciously radical in this most politically unadventurous of countries, with Mr Berlusconi and Mr Fini both at least as right-wing as Margaret Thatcher; Mr Berlusconi, who remains the bloc's candidate for prime minister, is further hampered by his conflicts of interest and his growing problems with anti-corruption magistrates.
The centre-left, meanwhile, is still suffering from the heritage of the old Italian Communist Party, of which the PDS is the direct heir; not only did the Left fail to win national power during the First Republic, but this is a country where for many years the Catholic church told its faithful that if they voted Communist they would go to hell. The leader of the Ulivo, the soft-left economist and industrial manager Romano Prodi, was chosen deliberately to overcome this prejudice, but his professorial, untelegenic manner has made many left-wingers as sceptical as ever that they can attain power.
Partly as a result of the misgivings, centre-right and centre-left find themselves virtually level-pegging in opinion polls, suggesting that neither can win a convincing majority. That has, up to now, left the balance of power with two idiosyncratic groups who have chosen to go it alone, the far-left party Rifondazione Comunista, and the secessionist Northern League. Rifondazione is periodically used in short-term electoral or parliamentary pacts, but more often feared or reviled. As for the League, Mr Berlusconi bet on its allegiance in 1994 and lost when it pulled out of his government; now nobody trusts it with a barge pole.
In the past few days, however, a new factor as emerged in the shape of Mr Dini, who has announced his intention to run, along with select members of his outgoing cabinet, on a centrist ticket loosely attached to the centre-left. His initiative has had the effect of a scatter-bomb, delighting the PDS and Mr Prodi while enraging the centre-right, which has tried to accuse Mr Dini of some kind of unconstitutional plot.
What Mr Dini seems to have sensed is a gap in the political market, just as Mr Berlusconi did with his whirlwind rise to power in 1994. Then, the need was for a charismatic leader to replace the shattered conservative forces of the First Republic. Now, Italy is looking for a respected, popular statesman with the moral force and political skill to make the country work at the most basic level.
For a long time everyone expected Antonio Di Pietro, the idolised former anti-corruption magistrate, to take up this mantle, but he has been sidelined by a lengthy smear campaign which is only now dissolving. Mr Dini, on the other hand, won considerable international kudos and domestic support during his year in office for his unflustered efforts to bring the runaway public deficit to heel.
His full-fledged entry into politics must be good news if it brings about a stable governing majority after April 21. For now, he seems to have tipped the scales in favour of the centre-left, although in the shifting sands of Italian politics it is not inconceivable that Mr Dini, a conservative free-marketeer by instinct, could at some future point swing back the other way.
The risk is that centrist parties such as Mr Dini's, as well as another new formation just established under Mr Maccanico, could block Italy's progress towards a functioning bipolar system. It could even push Italy back to the centrist hegemony formerly practised by the Christian Democrats.Reuse content