Is Italy on the eve of a major political crisis? Is a change of regime, or perhaps even the birth of a new republic, imminent? President Francesco Cossiga, who has been quiet for years, is suddenly performing strange antics; Socialist leader Bettino Craxi waits in the wings, hoping for a change from the parliamentary to the presidential system; the Mafia, octopuslike, spreads its tentacles, while the northern leghe, or leagues, reveal both regional jingoism and mainly middle-class discontent; and everybody is fed up with partitocrazia, the paralyzing and permanent rule by the parties. No wonder that Rome is rife with rumors of an impending institutional upheaval.

On the other hand, there seems no imperative need for such a drastic solution. Admittedly, the two historic items on the national agenda–a unified European market by the end of 1992 and a common currency before the end of the millennium–are likely to prove a strain on the Italian economy, with its huge budget deficit and hefty public debt. But the capitalist establishment need not fear any dangerous resistance from the left. Why bother, then, to install authoritarian rule? As a pre-emptive strike to take advantage of the opposition’s present weakness? France now seems to have been “normalized,” along American lines [see Singer, “Socialism’s Setting Sun,” June 3]. Will it be Italy’s turn next? These were some of the puzzling problems I traveled to Italy to discuss with colleagues and political friends.

Mezzogiorno and Mafia

The first time I went to Rome was as a student; I hitchhiked from London. As we approached the Italian capital my Milanese truck driver pointed south and proclaimed with emphatic contempt, We are entering Africa! He was exaggerating, of course. The dividing line lay much farther south, and even beyond Naples it was not quite Africa. But he drew my attention to Italy’s “southern question,” to the existence of two countries within one nation, to the gap that still yawns after years of dizzy economic transformation.

Northern Italy is very much part of prosperous Western Europe. It shows in conspicuous consumption–and not only in the big cities. On a recent visit to such smaller towns as Verona and Vigevano, a shoemaking center south of Milan, I was struck by the number of luxurious boutiques reminiscent of Bond Street, the Faubourg St. Honoré or the poshest stretch of Fifth Avenue. Helped no doubt by tax evasion, the local upper classes must have plenty of money to spend. Admittedly, there is no shortage of money in the South either: State subsidies poured down the Southern drain were not lost for everybody, and the Mafia offers its own rewards. But the difference remains striking. The South’s per capita product is barely more than half the North’s, while the unemployment rate, at 21 percent, 1s more than three times as high. (This, incidentally, is a topical lesson the East Germans–and Eastern Europeans in general–should ponder before they swallow the message of the Harvard hustlers.) In Italy the gap is in fact even worse than the figures suggest because of the damage wrought by the secret societies.

An Italian TV clip shows a luxurious hotel with liveried flunkies. Then comes the terror–a hand trampled by a heel against broken glass. On the soundtrack, the aria “Nessun dorma” from Puccini’s Turandot and whispered voices: “Don’t ask me, I have three children….” Finally, the message (“Mafia. Whoever keeps silent, consents”) and a telephone number. Altogether sixty seconds that can now be seen on one commercial and one public channel, with more to come, in an attempt to break the law of omertà.

“You can’t mention the Mafia as one of the major causes of the current tension,” a prominent Sicilian-born journalist objects, “since we have lived with it for years.” Others disagree. The Mafia has changed, they argue, since the early 1970s, when it became heavily involved in drugs. It now kills wholesale, sparing neither women nor children. If one includes not only the Sicilian Mafia but the Camorra as well, secret societies now poison political life in Sicily, Calabria and the Naples region. The infection has reached into Apulia, and drug money is making its mark on Milan’s financial market. The killers’ impunity strengthens the impression not so much of bad government, malgoverno, as of its absence, the abdication of central authority.

That TV clip is a sign of impotence rather than determination–and not surprisingly. It is hard to smash the Mafia when it has such strong links with the ruling coalition, particularly the dominant Christian Democrats (D.C.). Indeed, one of the reasons it may be difficult to grasp Italy’s prospects is the prevailing confusion between censors and sinners. Cossiga, who now lectures almost daily on the vices of the system, is a pure product of the D.C. Craxi, the Socialists’ would-be presidential savior, is the clever leader of a party that has received a much larger share of the spoils during his tenure than that of any previous leader. The snag is that such men get a hearing because of the degree of public discontent.

In France’s Footsteps?

This time, arriving in Rome by train, I was struck by the contrast between the glorious sunshine and the darkness of the political climate. Indeed, the mood was reminiscent of France in the winter of 1957-58, when the question was not if but when the tottering Fourth Republic would collapse. In Italy the prophets of doom even had a timetable. After the June 16 local elections in Sicily, which promised to be disastrous for the former Communists (and turned out just so, with their share of the vote dropping from 19.3 to 11.4 percent), the Socialists would precipitate a government crisis. A general election would follow in the autumn, with Sunday, October 6, being tipped as the likely date. Later scenarios varied: a constituent assembly, a referendum to demand the election of the president through universal suffrage, or even more dramatic pressures to alter the Constitution.

The French establishment chose to alter the Constitution and opt for Gaullism In 1958 because it assumed that traditional parliamentary democracy would not be able to cope with both the Algerian war and France’s entry into the Common Market. Italy has only to deal with the further integration of the European Community. Angelo Ciampi, governor of the Bank of Italy, recently proclaimed that “time is running short” for Italy to catch the European train. He outlined the necessary steps: halve inflation (currently close to 7 percent), bringing it into line with the levels in France and Germany; cut the public-sector borrowing requirement, which still exceeds 10 percent of gross domestic product; and reduce drastically the public debt, which is now slightly larger than that annual product.

That is a tall order, but it does not necessarily require a new system of rule, especially given the weakness of political opposition. The Italian Communist Party, now rechristened the Party of the Democratic Left (P.D.S.), appears bent on its own downfall. Bruno Trentin, the ex-Communist leader of the biggest labor union, the C.G.I.L., expresses the hope that Fiat strongman Cesare Romiti will take over the leadership of the Employers Association (the Confindustria), while the latter stresses the need for strong unions. This is not class struggle but a contest in courtesy. Obviously other reasons are needed to explain the rumors of crisis.

The leghe, of which the Lombard League is so far the strongest, provide some clues. The movement is often wrongly compared to poujadisme, the revolt of small shopkeepers in the poorer parts of France against commercial concentration. Rather, the leagues are a rebellion of richer regions unwilling to subsidize poorer ones. In a country that has been unified for only 120 years, there is apparently still scope for regional jingoism. League members dislike not only the newcomers from Africa but Italian migrants from the South as well. Predictably, they are against high taxation and in favor of strong government. The various leagues are expected to get about 10 percent of the national vote, much more in their Northern strongholds. So far they are merely unpleasant, but they could turn nasty.

In an effort to cut the budget deficit Italy has increased its tax burden, but it is still spread very unevenly and aggravated by fraud. Recently published statistics show that in almost every branch of the economy the employers, on average, declare a lower income than the employees. A friend, as we dine, gives an immediate example: The restaurant’s owner cheats the state of taxes by fraudulently minimizing his profits, then lends the state that money at a high interest rate by buying bonds.

Italians are not against Social Security, or the unemployment insurance that made economic restructuring bearable, or even against subsidies for the South. What galls them is the unfair fashion in which the money is raised, the wasteful way it is used and, above all, the political channels through which it transits. Italy is now the only country in Western Europe in which the same party has been in power since World War II. As Parliament is elected through proportional representation and the D.C. gets only about a third of the vote, it has to govern with three or four allies; it even granted Craxi the premiership for more than three years-enough to whet his appetite. But the D.C. has never lost control.

This government by coalition has given birth to a complicated system of sharing the spoils. It affects not only the top nomenklatura, the control of TV channels and key jobs in the vast public sector. It also determines patronage down to the lowest level, the distribution of manna in the South or the misappropriation of funds after an earthquake. It is clientelismo developed into a fine art. It is not parliamentary democracy that the Italians are fed up with but the usurpation of power by the party machines. A successful film that should soon be seen in the United States–Il Portaborse (the briefcase carrier)–will give you an idea of what drives them mad.

The Scribbler and the Commissar

Nanni Moretti is a leading member of the new wave of neorealists in the Italian cinema. Moretti is the producer of Il Portaborse and its leading actor, playing the onorevole Botero, an unscrupulous Socialist minister. The other protagonist is the portaborse of the title, which could have been “the ghostwriter.” He is a provincial high school professore whose gift for clever phrases wins him a post on the ministerial staff. With the job come the perks: His woman friend, also a teacher, is transferred to Rome; his family house, in need of repair, 1s declared a historic monument; he gets a trendy sports car. Yet after a brief spell in the job, he quits in a rage.

Admittedly, his minister is almost too bad to be true. Elected with the help of fraud, he makes money on the privatization of public property. He has never read a book, only introductions and conclusions. He cheats In the name of modernity and dismisses qualms of conscience as old hat. In his angry letter of resignation, the professor claims that the minister and his peers, far from being champions of modernity, are like feudal lords.

Yet such is Moretti’s talent that Botero appears almost attractive or, rather, irresistible with his ability to turn everything to his advantage. At the end, after being re-elected, Botero does a TV interview at home, surrounded by his wife and children. And what does he say in his moment of triumph? He proclaims with great conviction: Our task is still unfinished, we must now turn our attention to the entrenched feudal lords.

Nowhere in the film is it specified that the minister is a Socialist, but everyone took it for granted, including the party itself, which dismissed Botero as a caricature. Undoubtedly the director, Daniele Luchetti, was not striving for subtlety, and the film has elements of farce. But many people see Craxi’s party–“modern,” Americanized and unscrupulous-as destroying, almost inexorably, the rich heritage of the Italian left.

Bettino Is No General

The most sober description of the situation I heard came from a sophisticated observer of Italian affairs, a former labor leader who is now an independent senator elected with Communist backing. President Cossiga, he argued, can describe “gladiators”–that is, C.I.A. agents–as Italian patriots [see Singer, “The Gladiators,” December 10, 1990]; he can vituperate against magistrates and attack the Constitution he is supposed to protect. But when he preaches for a presidential system, he is backed neither by his party nor by crucial members of the business establishment such as Fiat owner Gianni Agnelli. Cossiga’s criticism of the parliamentary system may help Craxi’s presidential ambitions, but without D.C. support, the latter cannot go very far.

My veteran analyst proceeds, as is now the fashion, by analogy with the recent French past. Craxi cannot do a de Gaulle: He has neither the general’s charisma nor his track record. Nor can he rely on colonels from Algeria to bully Parliament. The Italian Constitution can be altered only by a two-thirds majority of the two houses combined in two successive votes. Support for his own party hovers between 15 and 20 percent, so even with the backing of the leagues and Italy’s small fascist party (which also favors a stronger regime), he cannot even dream of such a figure.

In theory, Craxi should be able to do a Mitterrand–that is, win as the leader of a left-wing coalition. There is every indication that Achille Occhetto’s P.D.S. would agree, however reluctantly, to be the junior partner in such an alliance. But the time factor makes this solution purely hypothetical. Mitterrand bided his time twenty-three years for his ultimate victory. Craxi’s party, I am told, cannot afford to stay six months out of government; it is too dependent on patronage.

Granted that pressure can be exercised in other ways, notably through a referendum, one may hope to split the sprawling Christian Democracy. The European context, however, works against an antiparliamentary coup. Italy is now closely tied to the Common Market, and the European establishment would not put up with such an authoritarian nationalist outcome, my veteran expert concluded.

No Weimar, but…

Other friends disagree, notably those from If Manifesto, a newspaper run by a group that was expelled from the C.P. because it refused to dismiss the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia as merely an “error.” They believe that such an optimistic reading of the future underestimates the degree to which Italian politics has been thrown out of balance by the decline and probable fall of the ex-Communist Party. While they obviously do not see renewed fascism on the horizon, they do think that the European establishment will be delighted if Italy, in turn, is normalized, with the power of Parliament greatly reduced.

A recent Italian newspaper headline declared that this would be “the first post-Yalta election.” Indeed, domestic politics in Italy used to be viewed as a sort of “peaceful co-existence” between the D.C. and its allies and the Communists. True, the latter had long ceased to be a revolutionary force. Nevertheless, the party did still preserve a distinct culture, a memory of resistance, a vague belief in a radically different society. It is this capital that Occhetto and Craxi are now squandering with such indecent haste.

Faced with the slow but steady erosion of his party’s electoral strength, Occhetto had a vision: If you can’t beat them, join them. By changing the party’s name and nature, he would win on the swings without losing on the roundabouts. But the opposite proved to be true. The party gained nothing on its right, while the breakaway left group, the Rifondazione Comunista, is much stronger than anyone predicted. Official figures tell the story. A year ago the C.P. still had more than 1.3 million members; the P.D.S. now claims 827,534. Even if one adds the 150,000 members of Rifondazione, the loss is considerable, and everything suggests it will be greater still at election time. There are efforts to preserve links between the Rifondazione and those leftists who stayed in the P.D.S. through clubs bearing the name of Berlinguer, Gramsci or Luxemburg. Optimists might argue that the P.D.S.’s slide will stop one day or that the Rifondazione will grow to become an alternative. But all this, at best, will be a long process. In the meantime, for the right, this is the moment to strike.

Craxi’s scenario suffered a setback on June 9-10, when Italians were asked in a referendum to restrict the number of their “preferences” from four to one. Under proportional representation one votes for lists, and the system of preferences–candidates the voter marks as favorites–was originally designed to give him or her greater power. But it turned out that the mechanism helped only the party machines, the Mafia and fraud in general. In the South it favored the D.C. and the Socialists. In the referendum campaign the party lines were not clearly drawn. Nevertheless, the main Christian Democratic leaders pooh-poohed the event, while Craxi advised the voters to go to the beach rather than the polling stations. His hope was that the turnout would not reach the quorum of 50 percent of the electorate. As it turned out, 63 percent voted, and 96 percent of them said to the reduction of preferences. Clearly Italians want more, not less, democracy. The problem is that this discontent, in the absence of a clear alternative, can easily be misdirected.

A Parting Shot

Termini is Rome’s modern railway station, built just after the war. Outside, on a sunny Sunday, there is an impressive jam of buses and a host of foreigners–migrants from the Third World rather than European tourists. Inside, narrow-hipped men and women with wistful eyes, turbans and colorful robes add an exuberant African touch to the scene. I ask an Italian where they are from; his answer suggests that they are not welcomed by everyone.

How time flies. Twenty-five years ago I reported from Switzerland, which was then proportionately the heaviest importer of foreign labor. There, too, the immigrants tended to gather on Sunday at train stations. Only they were Italians. This change symbolizes the tremendous transformation of Italy within a quarter century. Now the birthplace of so many emigrants must learn to live with immigrant workers, and the process is far from smooth. As the progressive movement loses strength, racism raises its ugly head. Unless the left awakens soon from its current lethargy, the prospect for sunny Italy may be quite dark. That is the conclusion that runs through my head as the night train, the Palatino, takes me back to Paris.