Sunday's municipal elections were another stage in the painful but entirely healthy process of throwing off a rotten and unwanted political class and searching for another. They found the voters grinding to pulp the last and biggest chunk of the post-war 'regime', the Christian Democrats, and reaching for the nearest alternative. For many, this is only a temporary solution until something better comes along.
The elections, involving just over 11 million voters, were the second test of the national mood since the collapse of the former ruling parties and the introduction of a majority voting system. Even so, they gave only a vague indication of the way the country may go in the general election next spring. It was a flare that lit up the country's present position on its confused and rocky journey across uncharted territory, with a long, long way still to go.
Last June's elections indicated that the country was politically divided into three, with the Northern League dominating the north, the former Communists the centre and the Christian Democrats the south. Sunday's showed that the League is still the strongest force in the north, though not necessarily able to push its candidates through in a first-past-the-post system - and certainly not able to extend its influence beyond its northern heartlands.
The former Communists, now the Democratic Party of the Left (PDS), appear now to be the biggest single party nationwide, but it was thanks to the party's alliances, usually with Greens and new reformist groups, that PDS- backed candidates came first in five out of the six main cities that voted.
The remarkable successes of the neo- Fascist Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI), whose candidates came second in Rome and Naples, prompted some snap conclusions that this party, for 50 years the outcast of Italian politics, is now the counterpart to the League in the centre and the south, and another sign that the country is drifting apart. It is a fact that north and south have been evolving in different directions, but to conclude that the neo-Fascists are now the big right-wing force in the south is over-hasty.
First, they were nowhere to be seen in Palermo, the Sicilian capital, which elected a left-wing, anti-Mafia candidate with an astonishing 75.2 per cent, while his party, La Rete, was biggest with 32 per cent. Moreover, the results in smaller towns were a hotchpotch, with no party or grouping appearing to dominate. Despite resentment of immigrants in many places, there is no sign of a significant right-wing extremist upsurge.
Second, voting for a local mayor and voting for a national parliament and government are two different things. Neapolitans who voted on Sunday for the shapely Alessandra Mussolini, granddaughter of the former Fascist dictator, may think twice before sending a neo-Fascist to Rome.
Third, the votes from the Christian Democrats had to go somewhere. Many southern conservatives who voted neo- Fascist would probably respond like Milan taxi-drivers do to visitors scandalised to hear they voted League: 'Well, tell me, who else is there?'
Probably the single most significant result of these elections is the collapse of what remained of the Christian Democrats. For nearly half a century this moderate, Catholic party had absorbed the lion's share of the centre and right-wing vote because it could claim to be the great bulwark against Communism. In the south, particularly, its second great strength was clientelismo - being able to produce favours (jobs, pensions) in exchange for votes.
Now the fear of the 'reds' has gone, along with the Berlin Wall, and the Christian Democrats can no longer pull the strings in the country's network of power as they used to. Clientelismo may not yet be dead: some former Christian Democrats and former allies are clearly recycling themselves under other labels in the south. The election of Giovanni Gaudioso, a Socialist, as mayor of Barano on the island of Ischia, despite the fact that he is in jail for alleged abuse of office as chairman of Naples airport, is indicative.
So far there is no new moderate centre-right party to take its place and lure back many of the votes from the neo- Fascists and the League. Mario Segni, the respected electoral reformer, is aiming to fill the gap, but is so far little more than a leader in search of a party. Mino Martinazzoli, the lugubrious 'Mr Clean', has been trying hard to clean up the Christian Democrats and relaunch the party, but without success. The smell of corruption and malgovernment cannot be washed away so fast.
The results have provided lessons that the parties and movements will be studying carefully before the general election. Umberto Bossi, leader of the Northern League, for whom the results fell short of his accustomed triumphs, announced that 'our strategies will have to be reviewed'. Other leaders took the attitude that if the centre and south did not warm to their ideas, they should be left to rot.
But what Mr Bossi may be asking himself is whether his outrageous remarks, his threats of a secessionist parliament and his attacks on the judiciary, the government and the president have not become a brake on the League's seemingly unstoppable expansion. The strength of feeling in the north against 'thieving Rome' and 'parasitical southerners' should not be underestimated, but polls show that the majority of Italians, including League voters, do not want the country divided up, even into a federation.
The success of the left-wing alliances may ease the way towards a left-wing bloc and even lead to the formation of a party to fight future elections. But the process of adapting psychologically from the proportional system to the new and strange majority system, which requires broader-based groupings, is not easy - particularly for the former Communists, with their traditions, pride and sense of identity.
Nevertheless, the PDS is much changed: it has become a moderate, social democrat-type party, and when Mr Bossi called it the biggest party of the centre, he was not entirely wrong. Extremist members who wanted to preserve the purity of their beliefs are now in the small Rifondazione Comunista, way to the left of them.
News of the successes by left-wing candidates shook the stock markets and sent the lira and government bonds tumbling - a reaction not only to the uncertainties ahead, but to the possibility of a left-wing government. But if (and it is still a large if) a leftish alliance gained a majority in the next elections, Italy would simply be experiencing for the first time since the war what Britain, Germany, France and most other Europeans take for granted: a perfectly democratic change of government.
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