Leading Article: Italy should not forget the centre Political skills that Italy will need

NOT LONG AGO, the theme of Italian politics appeared to be simple. A corrupt old order was to be cast out by resolute magistrates, reforming politicians and a public newly alive to the virtues of civic responsibility. A new republic would arise upon the bankrupt remnants of the old. The complex history of Italy is punctuated by such interludes of clarity - the Risorgimento, for example, or the two decades of Mussolini's rule.

But the general election next weekend is not likely to produce so clear a result. It is being fought under a system only partly reformed. It was hoped that a cabinet might take office with an outright majority and a mandate to govern. That aspiration may yet prove elusive.

Italians are asked to choose between a wide range of parties, but three groupings are clear. On the centre-right thunders Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia, an electoral machine brilliantly organised by a man from Saatchi & Saatchi's Italian operation. Mr Berlusconi's tactical allies include the Northern League, which speaks for the disgruntled Milanese taxpayer, and the neo-fascists, whose heartland lies in the Mediterranean south. This is a marriage of convenience. It may not outlast polling day and contains the seeds of regional conflict that tug at the fabric of the Italian state.

The second major group clusters around the fragments of the old Communist party, now tinged a blushing hue of pink and decorated with the slogans of sensible social democracy. This alliance has its troubles, too, in the shape of a fervent group of loyal Communists unwilling to exchange Marx for Machiavelli. It is entirely in keeping with the paradoxes of post-war Italian political life, however, that the leftists, not Mr Berlusconi, have convinced financial markets that they are serious about reform of the state bureaucracy, privatisation and fiscal severity. These are the key issues for Italy.

All the more reason, then, for voters and analysts to question the role of a third faction remaining at the core of the governing system. It includes the decent figures left amid the wreckage of Christian Democracy, such as Mario Segni, and the non-political ministers who served in the transitional government of Carlo Azeglio Ciampi. In the absence of an outright winner, whoever forms the next cabinet may have to do business with some of these gentlemen. That is good, for both left and right lack figures of experience in the oriental arts of Italian governance. Mr Ciampi and his team steered their country through a period of upheaval without serious instability. Their skills should not lightly be cast aside.