At the news that in Rome well over a third of the electorate voted for Gianfranco Fini, leader of the neo-Fascist M.S.I. (Italian Social Movement), and in Naples nearly a third picked another party member, Alessandra Mussolini, granddaughter of Benito, one’s first reaction is shock. On reflection, however, the results of the election of November 21, when about a quarter of the country went to the polls to choose municipal councils and mayors, are not really surprising. What did you expect the Italians to do after nearly two years of tangentopoli, the great, ongoing scandal that revealed that for years the parties in the ruling coalition had lived on bribes from big business? They kicked out the incumbents and voted for outsiders who, by definition, had clean hands: the Northern League and the M.S.I. on the right and, to a lesser extent, the left as a whole, led by the former Communists of the P.D.S. (Democratic Party of the Left).

They did so with a vengeance. The Christian Democratic Party, which has ruled the country for nearly half a century, crumbled. The not-so-Socialist Party of Bettino Craxi, the D.C.’s main partner in recent years, has almost vanished. The Northern League, which had already conquered Milan, is consolidating its position throughout Piedmont and spreading south. Though its candidates are expected to lose in Genoa, Trieste and Venice in the runoff elections for mayor on December 5 , the league is already the major party in those cities. Yet the real shocker was the re-emergence of the M.S.I., which apparently has inherited the bulk of the exasperated D.C. electorate. (In Rome rumor has it that in preparation for the general election the M.S.I. will dissolve into a more respectable right-wing formation including such Christian Democratic politicians as former President Francesco Cossiga.)

The only consolation is the relatively good showing of the left. If all goes well in Rome, the mayors of the six biggest cities may all be backed by the P.D.S. Paradoxically, in this hour of victory, Achille Occhetto, its leader, may be forced to alter his strategy. He had changed the nature and name of the party so as to form alliances with the center. But the center has virtually disappeared and logic points to an alliance with Rifondazione Comunista, which broke with the party when it changed course, and the anti-Mafia Rete of Leoluca Orlando, mayor of Palermo. Yet can the left unite and, more important still, offer a new deal to cope with the economic crisis and thus arrest the drift to the right of the exasperated?

Time is running short. Prime Minister Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, his government so obviously unrepresentative, may be forced to stage a general election early in the new year. In a crisis-torn country contemptuous of its institutions, where the political mood of one Roman or Neapolitan in three is “Rather fascists than thieves,” there is reason to tremble. Hannibal ad portas! The old Roman slogan can be retranslated as, “The right is at the gates!”