Leading Article: A clear mandate for change in Italy

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THE PEOPLE of Italy have voted in overwhelming numbers for change. To only two of the eight referendum questions did less than 80 per cent of them answer Si. With that sort of momentum, it is tempting to surmise that they might even have voted for the abolition of pasta if they had felt it would promote a national renewal. The nature of the response showed a touching faith, or at least hope, that change would of itself rid the nation's politics of its besetting corruption. The challenge to the better elements of the political class is now to transmute the national yearning for change into reforms that genuinely transform the nature of Italian politics.

The key question in the referendum proposed replacing the country's (excessively pure) version of proportional representation for the election of three-quarters of the Senate with a first-past-the-post system. The change was approved by well in excess of 80 per cent of those who voted. It will now be for the next government, whatever form it may take, to decide whether to adopt the British system, with its single vote, or the French system, which gives smaller parties a chance to form alliances in time for a second vote a week after the first. The overwhelming response makes it virtually certain that the same new system will be adopted for elections to the more powerful Chamber.

It is far from inevitable that proportional representation, even in a form that elects one-person parties, should lead to corruption as well as weak government. Israel has a similar system, but corruption is not a serious problem there, and an alternation of power between the two largest parties is regularly achieved. What ruined the Italian system was the post-war imperative of keeping the second-largest party, the Communists, out of power. That single Cold War necessity ensured the largest party, the Christian Democrats, a permanently dominant role, while enabling smaller parties to indulge in not-so-gentle blackmail: fulfil our demands or we quit your coalition. The result was an endless succession of weak coalition governments, in which the same Christian Democrat personalities exchanged the top jobs. The clean-out resulting from a clear change of power never took place.

MPs relied on the approval of their party bosses for their position on the all- important party lists that determined whether or not they were elected. Their loyalty was to the party, not to the electorate. If they toed the line, they could be in politics for life. With all the powers of influence and patronage thus accumulated, they could build up a web of alliances with local businessmen and - in the south especially - with members of the Mafia and other criminal bodies.

Nobody seems to know quite what effect adoption of a first-past-the-post system might have. It seems likely it would divide the north from the south, with the upwardly mobile Northern League dominant above Rome, the Christian Democrats below it. In the south, the neo-Fascists could well attract some of those no longer prepared to support a party increasingly identified with the discredited old guard.

The outcome of the referendum, with its stark appeal for change, presents Italy with an unparalleled opportunity to create a political system worthy of the country's entrepreneurial energy and enormous sense of style. Yet it is members of the old political system who will have to create the framework within which the next elections are held. The country's friends will be hoping that they rise to the occasion.