Rosa Russo Jervolino, 58, a Catholic lawyer and currently Education Minister, is a relatively new face and, above all, is untainted by suspicions of thieving, intrigues, patronage and the other murky habits that have so discredited the older party leadership.
She and Mino Martinazzoli, the secretary-general elected earlier this month, will seek to reform the party, its statutes, its internal organisation, its aims, its morals and its image - if it is not already too late. Mr Martinazzoli has warned that the Christian Democrats face extinction in some places.
The party is the biggest chunk of Italy's old political firmament which is breaking up under the pressure of public disgust with the decay in the ruling parties. After relying on 38-40 per cent of the vote in recent decades, the DC plunged to less than 30 per cent in last April's elections and would doubtless do even worse now.
Led by the great post-war statesman Alcide de Gasperi, supported by small farmers, Catholic workers and lay organisations, shopkeepers, numerous industrialists and - above all - the Vatican, the DC became by far the biggest party in Italy's first free post- war elections and was regarded as the main bulwark against the influential Communists.
De Gasperi's DC set Italy on its European course and started its rise from a poor country to a medium-sized economic power. But thanks to its size and to the absence of an acceptable alternative, the DC became virtually identified with the state, to the extent that it was accused of 'occupying' power. It appointed its proteges to key posts in state and para-state bodies, a useful source of patronage and nepotism. It controlled television and much of the media and awarded contracts and permits in return for kick-backs, which filled the party coffers and individual members' pockets.
Its smaller coalition partners were not immune from such temptations and the Socialists, who joined the DC in the 1960s, are reputed to have outdone it in greed and brazenness - and are paying with even greater unpopularity. Even the Communists, ruling in regional governments and cities, were not immune.
Despite the setback in April, many of the old guard could not bring themselves to go and it was only an even worse defeat in polls in Mantua last month that led to the election of Mr Martinazzoli and Ms Jervolino. Nevertheless, many old-timers are still in the DC's corridors of power, including Giulio Andreotti, the former prime minister alleged to be linked indirectly to the Mafia.
If the new leadership fails, the DC vote will emigrate to new political formations. In the north it is haemorrhaging votes to the populist Northern League while the new Democratic Alliance founded this month by a Sardinian DC leader, Mario Segni, is offering a clean, honest alternative to middle-of-the-road Catholic, lay, Green and radical voters.Reuse content