Leading Article: Better old reds than neo-Fascists

THE RESULTS of the second round of municipal elections in Italy are a relief. In the most important northern cities, notably Venice and Genoa, the once unstoppable Northern League suffered its first major setback. In Rome and Naples, the star candidates of the neo-Fascist Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI), Alessandra Mussolini and the party leader, Gianfranco Fini, were pipped to the post by left-of-centre alliances.

Overall, the undoubted winner was the Democratic Party of the Left (PDS), as the moderate majority of the former Communist Party renamed themselves in 1991. Its leader, Achille Occhetto, called the outcome 'a historic result for the left' and 'a turning point in national politics'.

Whether historians see it as a landmark or yet another cry of disgust at the corruption of the long- dominant Christian Democratic and Socialist parties will depend on the PDS's performance at the general election expected in the spring. That in turn will hang on the ability of the centre-right to create a credible and attractive party to fill the present vacuum.

Rapid though recent changes in Italian politics have been, it is hard to see how such a new party could become a significant force in the available time. The PDS, by contrast, is well-organised, skilled at forming alliances and producing good candidates. Come the election, it could - faute de mieux - emerge as the country's dominant party.

It was not the PDS but Umberto Bossi's Northern League that first benefited from the wave of corruption that engulfed the Christian Democrats and smaller Socialist Party. The league's basic message was that northerners would be better off without those profligate, Mafia-ridden southerners. Sunday's results suggest that its appeal outside its Lombardy heartland is waning.

The PDS has taken some time to establish itself after its break with the old Communist Party's hardliners. It is now accepted as a responsible, social democratic-style party. Although committed to helping the socially weak, it supports the present government's stringent economic policies and budget plans. The scandals in which it has been involved have been not insignificant but relatively small-scale.

Despite his own reputation for indecisiveness, Mr Occhetto must now be rated one of Italy's most important politicians. To those who fear anyone with a Communist past, that may seem alarming. But for those at home and abroad who suspected Italy might slide into neo-Fascism, it is greatly preferable to a significant victory for the MSI.