Clamor for Reform : For Italians, It's Piecemeal Government

Times Staff Writer

Gianfranco Fini and Ilona Staller, symbols of yesterday's dictatorship and today's sensationalism, stare across an unbridgeable gap in the same Italian Parliament.

Fini is Italy's latest Il Duce. Staller is a practicing porn queen.

Political opposites, they typify the chaos of Italian democracy today amid growing calls for reform of the splintery political system that has encouraged such confusion.

The exuberant Fini, 35, is an admirer of former dictator Benito Mussolini and the new leader of Italian neo-fascists. His Movimento Sociale Italiano, which won 5.9% of the vote in the last national elections, is Italy's fourth-largest political party.

Lectures on Free Love

The exhibitionist Staller, 36, lectures Parliament on the virtues of free love as representative of the Radical Party, which got 2.6% of the vote last June. On weekends, she becomes Cicciolina, the mistress of night club shows sometimes interrupted by the police.

Forty years ago this week, Italy, which had emerged from World War II a scarred and backward agrarian nation under a discredited monarchy, enacted a new republican constitution that prescribed the broadest possible multi-party democracy.

It has been government by fragments ever since; an alphabet soup of parties and movements sharing power and its spoils in a closed winners' circle that Italians have come to know scornfully as partitocrazia-- or aristocracy of the political party.

Four dozen Italian governments have come and gone in four decades, most of them weak, some incoherent, all the product of loud, laborious coalitions in which the tail has sometimes wagged the dog.

Along the way, Italy transformed itself into one of the world's great industrial powers. Today, Romans earn more and live better than Londoners. Development has been achieved, many Italians insist, not because of their governments, but in spite of them.

Prosperity intensifies an across-the-board cry for institutional reform that would streamline and strengthen government to match the society it is supposed to direct. La Grande Riforma, as it is called, is less a new idea than an idea whose time appears to have come.

Mounting Disaffection

Reform, its supporters say, would mute mounting popular disaffection with a system that most Italians believe has outlived its purpose.

The elusive goal is for stable governments with enough decision-making authority to more effectively confront complexities of the technological age, whether in implementing transnational accords or controlling paralyzing waves of wildcat strikes.

Symptomatic of the quickening national debate was the joint public appeal last month by 30 prominent Italians in culture, science and industry for electoral reform, and the editorial warning by the priest-editor of Italy's largest Jesuit magazine that "government cannot exist at the mercy of the parties and depend only on their interests."

Lame Duck in Power

Italy's current government, a lame duck from the day of its birth five months ago, is an advertisement for reform.

In November, the Liberal Party, with 2.1% of the vote, forced the resignation of Christian Democratic Prime Minister Giovanni Goria, its erstwhile ally, over a modest disagreement on financial policy. After days of political maneuvering spiced with torrents of black coffee and gales of cigarette smoke, the Liberals kissed and made up.

That left Goria tenuously in office and commentators more outraged than ever at the time wasted and the effort consumed in resolving a fabricated crisis.

The Liberal Party is one of 14 parties and factions represented in the chamber of deputies, although only four of them received more than 5% of the total vote.

Boost for Radicals

Staller, most often seen about town with one breast exposed, gave a boost to the Radicals, who nevertheless meet this weekend--for the second time in two years--to decide whether to quit Italian politics.

"After their experience with Fascism, the post-war Italians sought a constitution that would ensure minority representation while preventing domination by any single party," said David Travis, an Italy specialist at the University of Washington. "They could not have anticipated that two hostile parties would regularly split two-thirds of the vote, leaving small parties with disproportionate influence in the formation of governments."

The Christian Democrats, who received 34.3% of the vote in the last election, and the Communists, who got 26.6%, are the antithetical lions of Italian politics. For the 40-year life of the current constitution, the Christian Democrats have ruled Italy in coalition with smaller parties equally determined to keep the second-place Communists from office.

Small Vote, Big Voice

In Goria's coalition, the Liberals' 2% vote is worth one Cabinet post and four undersecretaries. To assure a parliamentary majority, the Christian Democrats have also yoked themselves with the third-place Socialists, with 14.3%, the Republicans, 3.7%, and the Social Democrats, 3%, assigning government portfolios as necessary to keep a fragile peace.

Europe's most cumbersome governmental system is compounded by an obese, verbose, and, many argue, obtuse, Parliament. Italy, with one-quarter the U.S. population, has nearly twice as many national legislators.

There are 630 fractious members of the Chamber of Deputies, and 324 individualists in the Senate. The two chambers never undertake complementary deliberations. Rather, they entirely duplicate one another in consideration of legislation: Over the past five years, fewer than half of the government's bills have become law despite strong government majorities in both houses.

Vote Cast for Parties

Under the present rules, Italians vote only for parties, never governments, since it is never certain which party will wind up in whose coalition. Despite vote percentages that change only slightly, Italy has had five prime ministers since 1982. They have been Republican, Christian Democrat, Socialist, Christian Democrat, Christian Democrat. Italy's current president, elected by Parliament to his ceremonial post, is Francesco Cossiga, a Christian Democrat. His predecessor was Alessandro Pertini, a Socialist.

After listening for more than a decade to calls for reform, the politicians also appear to have the message now. Public disgust in recent months has been fueled not only by the unnecessary Liberal crisis, but also by corruption charges against politicians, sapping transport strikes beyond government control, and a low turnout for referenda so complex even voters who understood the issues and knew how they wanted them resolved had trouble deciding whether voting yes meant yes or no.

Bettino Craxi, the ambitious Socialist party leader who was prime minister a year ago, has been systematically sounding reform's call in talks with other parties. Believing that change can only help his own party, Craxi is its principal advocate. "To this Italy of Byzantine rites, we must bring new rules of the game," he intoned recently.

'Exhausted and Degraded'

For a long time, the Communists argued that Italy's political dilemma was not one of institutions but of parties. Now, they, too, agree that the system is in crisis--"exhausted and degraded," in the words of party leader Alessandro Natta.

The Christian Democrats, who have the most to lose, also endorse change. Lamenting a growing abyss between the people and their politicians, Christian Democratic leader Ciraco De Mita warns that the political system risks "catastrophe" if change does not come.

The small parties, predictably, are not anxious to sign their own writ of execution. "The Constitution works well; it just needs a little retouching," said Senate President Giovanni Spadolini, a leader of the Republicans. The Republicans gathered only 3% of the vote, but coalition maneuvering has carried Spadolini to posts as prime minister and defense minister.

Majority Favor Change

There is by now clear majority will for change but an utter absence of consensus on how to change what. There are as many ideas as there are parties and politicians. Constitutional reform requires either a two-thirds vote in both houses or a majority vote of Parliament endorsed by a referendum.

Many critics also want parliamentary procedural reform to speed legislative work. Some call for creation of U.S.-style single member constituencies rather than assignment of seats by vote proportions. Others insist that the number of legislators should be reduced. Still others say the Senate should be abolished, but senators think Italy would do well without the larger Chamber of Deputies.

In their appeal for reform, the 30 private sector leaders proposed adoption of a French-style, two-round electoral system. Craxi likes some variation of the West German system, which requires a minimum 5% vote for parliamentary representation. De Mita thinks perhaps coalitions should be formed in advance of elections so that people can know more precisely for whom they are voting.

Blocking Actions

Desperate blocking actions by the small parties are the only certainty right now, but Craxi, who has the clout to do it, threatens to force general elections if there is no agreement among the parties for reform in 1988.

In the meantime, the fringe elements savor stolen moments on center stage.

Fini won headlines by defeating other neo-fascist candidates who wanted to modernize their party. He promises there will be no change of the party's right-wing alignment or its avowed admiration for the corporate state ideals of the opportunistic dictator who led Italy to defeat in World War II and was executed by Italian partisans seven years before Fini's birth.

Staller, for her part, uses her official biography in the otherwise dry-as-dust Parliamentary Handbook to advertise a new X-rated film, made in Los Angeles, in which she co-stars with John Holmes.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World