Americans who associate the idea of crisis with quickened pulses, tough decisions and wailing sirens may have trouble understanding what follows, but here is what has been happening in Rome these soft spring days:
All week, politicians of sober mien and myriad political coloration have been meeting over coffee to earnestly inquire of one another whether this is a good time to have a crisis. They decided it is.
So it was that Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti resigned Friday, not plunging Italy into political crisis, although that is what it is called. At best, it is a yawning crisis.
The Good Friday timing of the death of Italy’s 49th coalition government since World War II is evocative, for there is every chance that the wily, 72-year-old Andreotti will rise again for a seventh incarnation as prime minister.
Not on Easter Sunday--that would be unseemly--but perhaps sometime next week.
Andreotti resigned after Italian Socialists, his key partners in a five-party coalition that has ruled for 20 months, demanded new initiatives to confront knotty national political and economic problems.
Additional pressure for change came from Italian President and fellow Christian Democrat Francesco Cossiga, who had criticized Andreotti’s government as ineffective.
As a practical matter, Andreotti and all of his ministers remain in office, and the government continues to function normally in a caretaker’s role until a successor Cabinet is devised.
In the meantime, it is also business as normal for the 57 million Italians, who are by now not only inured but also indifferent to so-called political crises. Governments have fallen and risen in Italy--usually after a verbose round of musical chairs that brought little real change--on an average of once every 11 postwar months.
In resigning, the current coalition members--Christian Democrats, Socialists, Liberals, Republicans and Social Democrats--said they expect to collaborate once again in forming a new government. That would mean that, as so many times before, a fallen government would succeed itself.
Andreotti, who returned from a visit to the United States earlier this week, had hoped to paper over differences among the coalition partners with a Cabinet reshuffle that would have endured until elections scheduled for June, 1992.
The Socialists, under ambitious Bettino Craxi, himself a former and would-be prime minister, balked, however, insisting on new programs to deal with the government budget and organized crime, two perennial problems that have proved resistant to all previous attempts at control.
Craxi also seeks institutional reform to rationalize a political system beset by party bickering and fragmentation: More than a dozen parties and movements are represented in Parliament, but only three of them command any more than 5% of the vote.
Among the Socialists’ demands is a call for a national referendum that would change the present prime ministerial system of government to an American- or French-style administration headed by a directly elected president.
Many Christian Democrats oppose a referendum, preferring instead reforms that would, German-style, restrict parliamentary representation to parties with substantial national followings.
Cossiga, who was elected to his largely ceremonial post by Parliament, caused a political sensation last week by reminding Italians that he has the power to dissolve Parliament and to call new elections.
The government, he said, had become paralyzed by the bickering of political parties and had proven itself incapable of enacting economic or political reform.
Andreotti’s supporters point to a long list of important legislation over the past two years. Still, it has become clear to Italian voters that the current system of government, created as a determinedly democratic antidote to fascism, must be streamlined if Italy is to compete effectively in the new Europe.
Under the current rules, Cossiga will ask a candidate of his choice, probably Andreotti, to form a new government. That will trigger a windy round of meetings among coalition leaders whose echoes will, as usual, be unheard by Italians engrossed in the rites of spring.
Forty-three years ago, Italy, which had emerged from World War II a scarred and backward agrarian nation under a discredited monarchy, enacted a 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-- aristocracy of the political party.