Leading Article: Rotten centre could not hold

Click to follow
THE results of Sunday's local elections in 428 Italian cities and three provinces can be seen either as a further and alarming stage in that country's decline, or as an inevitable phase in its renewal. There might certainly seem to be cause for alarm in an outcome that gives the four parties supporting the national government in Rome a mere 15 or 16 per cent of the vote, as against 48.8 per cent in the 1992 general elections.

The main winners are three mutually antagonistic parties with illiberal backgrounds: the former Communist Party, now the Democratic Party of the Left (PDS), the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement (MSI), and the ragbag, regionalist Northern League.

Yet recent history suggests that voters were driven to support these parties more by their disgust for the corruption in which the traditionally dominant Christian Democrats and Socialists have become mired than by any great enthusiasm for their political agenda. The political vacuum left by the discrediting of the Christian Democrats and Socialists remains unfilled.

There is, moreover, little prospect of a convincing new party of the moderate centre-right arising in time for the general elections expected next spring. Such a party will need not just a charismatic leader but a sufficient number of fresh, untainted candidates. The main contender so far, Mario Segni and his fledgling National Renovation Pact, has not looked equal to the task.

What has happened in Italy represents a curious inversion of political evolution. The norm is for extremist governments, be they of the left or right, to be replaced by those in which the centre-left or centre-right predominate, if necessary in coalition. So it was in Spain and Portugal, when the fascistic dictators Franco and Salazar passed on, and in Eastern Europe, when the Communist era ended.

In Italy, by contrast, it is the centre that has collapsed from its own rottenness. In retrospect, it was held together principally by the Cold War and the concomitant fear of a strong Communist Party seizing the reins of government in a West European country embedded in the EC and Nato. Once that was taken away, all the corruption that had become inseparable from the exercise of power bubbled to the surface.

The former Communists (PDS) have become a genuinely social democratic party, and have shown an ability both to produce convincing candidates and to cement alliances at the local level. Pending the renewal of the centre-right, it is in their competence and honesty that Italy's best hopes probably now lie.