Maybe they were Right all along: Italy's election was a first step towards political normality, writes Patricia Clough

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THERE is something wickedly ironic about the victory of the right in the Italian elections. For the 50 years since the fall of Fascism, untold effort and immeasurable amounts of money have been spent and many human lives sacrificed to keep Italy from succumbing to the left. Parties and politicians have been financed, the Almighty pressed into service, conspiracies woven, secret networks formed, pacts with the Mafia sealed, bombs exploded, innocents massacred and - it is suspected - a former prime minister kidnapped and murdered so that Italians would go on, as one commentator famously put it, 'holding their noses and voting Christian Democrat'. Or for its politically acceptable allies.

For the left meant the big Communist Party, and Communism meant Soviet power. In the post-war world a Communist Italy would have caused a major East-West crisis, if not worse, and gravely disrupted the balance of power in Europe.

Few people were really aware at the time quite how politically constrained Italy was, and it did not particularly matter. The return, time after time, of Christian Democrat-dominated governments was voluntary, no one oppressed anyone, there was no secret police, the country grew prosperous and became an important member of the European Union, Nato and the Western world. The only thing it could not have was a genuine change of government.

Now, for the first time, Italy has had truly free elections. The Cold War is over, Communism gone, the power of the Church has disappeared - and the blessed country has gone and voted for the right.

There is, of course, no knowing whether 10 or 20 years ago, without all the invisible forces at play here, Italy would have gone Communist. But with the dust of the elections still to settle it looks as if the country has finally broken out of its post-war straitjacket and taken the first step towards becoming politically normal.

The first and most striking result has been the liberation of the right. Ever since the war the political heir of the Fascist dictatorship, the neo-fascist Movimento Sociale Italiano, has been a political outcast. Other parties would have nothing to do with it and few people, other than diehards, would openly sympathise with it. Now, under its personable, decent young leader Gianfranco Fini, its immigrant-bashing skinheads have been shoved into the background, its name changed to the National Alliance (AN) and its image transformed into that of a respectable, Gaullist-style, European right- wing party.

At the same time the other main conservative party, the Christian Democrats, has gone. Although its Catholic identity and left-leaning social conscience did not suit all its voters, up to now they remained faithful in order to keep the Communists out. Now they can unashamedly declare themselves right-wingers and support AN or the media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi.

The Catholic church, for decades the main bulwark against Communism, has lost its political power. Its bishops had regularly urged their flocks to vote for 'Catholic unity', which meant 'vote Christian Democrat'. But their moral authority collapsed when the shocking depths of corruption and abuse by the party were exposed. Now they make it clear they favour the centre, but few people listen to them. There is no longer a specifically Catholic party and most practising Italian Catholics see no reason why their religion should commit them to a particular political view.

Like many of the post-revolutionary elections in Europe over the past four years, this result is partly an emotional reaction against what went before. It is unlikely that the Italian centre will remain as weak as it is now, but the centre is where the corrupt ruling parties positioned themselves and for all their attempts to present a clean new face, voters instinctively go for something that is more convincingly new.

One might question the political maturity of voters - almost one in four - who will 'buy' a new political leader just as they buy the shampoo and chocolate bars advertised on his television channels - a leader who will let his smooth new image and his seductive promises of tax cuts, a million jobs and higher pensions outweigh questions about his massive debts, his links to the old regime, his membership of the sinister P2 masonic network and doubts about his ulterior motives.

But Berlusconi the politician and his Forza Italia movement are new: three months ago they did not even exist. This is the problem for the left and particularly for the former Communists, now renamed the Partido Democratica Sinistra (PDS), the Democratic Party of the Left. The fact that it has changed its name and ideas, and is now a moderate social democratic party, is clearly not enough. Its leader, Achille Occhetto, who steered the party successfully through this metamorphosis, is too old and familiar a face. The party, although always in opposition, is paying the price for its long-time complicity with the old regime. It too has corruption scandals.

The 'Communist' epithet, used liberally by Mr Berlusconi, is objectively absurd, but it worked. Knee-jerk attitudes from the Cold War days persist. And the fact that there is a hardline anti-Nato Communist party in the left- wing alliance, the small Rifondazione Comunista, gives the slur a shred of plausibility.

In the end the left did not do too badly. Its natural voters, or most of them, probably remained in its fold. The PDS was still the second biggest party, close behind Forza Italia. But to win elections in future it will need to deal with the hard left and acquire a newer, fresher, more modern image.

The road to normality is a long one and many Italians seem to doubt that the country will ever get there. The next step depends largely on whether the victorious right-wing alliance, which in fact was only an electoral alliance, is able to produce a viable government. Then it will have to fulfil its election promises and put Italy's economy in order, reform the archaic state bureaucracy and give the country an efficient, honest government - a formidable task.

A priority, in any case, is further reform of the electoral system to remove the proportional element which has been retained, thanks to a compromise enforced by the old guard in the last parliament, for one quarter of the seats in parliament. This throwback has greatly confused the results and prevented Italy getting the full benefit of its switch to the British-style majority system.

If the right does not succeed, the process of transition is likely to go on for some time longer. A non-political government like the last one will probably take the country to another round of elections, at which the historic shakedown will continue.