• U.S.

ITALY: The Election That Nobody Wanted or Won

6 minute read

It was a premature election that nobody particularly wanted, and when the votes were counted, nobody really won. In Italy’s two-day national election last week, the dominant Christian Democrats (D.C.) recovered handsomely from disappointing regional election returns late last spring, but once again failed to gain the majority to form an effective government. The Italian Communist Party (P.C.I.) picked up more votes and more parliamentary seats than ever, but not enough to overcome the Christian Democrats, as supporters had hoped. Italy’s center parties, meanwhile, were caught between these political behemoths and were mauled.

Essentially, the only result of Italy’s most critical election in 30 years was that Communists had been kept from power. The Italian party—largest in the West and independently moderate under its popular leader Enrico Berlinguer (TIME cover, June 14)—so worried Western leaders that Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had repeatedly warned Italians against voting Communists into government. Last week Kissinger called the results a standoff and predicted another election within a year. The Vatican, Berlinguer’s other relentless foe, was just as concerned. Pope Paul VI last week undertook the revitalization of Catholic lay organizations; their 5 million members were last used politically in the church’s anti-Communist battles of the Cold War years.

Some 37 million Italian voters went to the polls. The Christian Democrats, under their reform-minded Party Secretary Benigno Zaccagnini, 64, had played down responsibility for a sick economy with 20% inflation, 7% unemployment and a $20 billion deficit. Zaccagnini spoke instead of a “policy of renewal” within the party; Christian Democrats everywhere had played on fears that Italy—and the Western Alliance—would be changed irrevocably if Communists were allowed a share in government.

That strategy proved to be effective —but only to a point. The Communists gained votes in all 20 Italian regions and came close to winning control of Rome’s municipal government. In Parliament, the P.C.I. gained 48 additional Chamber of Deputies seats, for a total of 227 (out of 630). Berlinguer, running for three different seats, won them all, and in Rome gained the election’s largest total of preferential votes (279,158). In the Senate, the Communists won 22 more seats, for a total of 116 (out of 315). The Christian Democrats, however, gathered 14.2 million votes—38.7% of the total. That translated into 263 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, a loss of three. In the Senate they held their 135 seats.

Doubtful Appeal. The election results suggested that Italy might be heading toward a two-party system. The far-right neo-Fascists suffered badly, losing 21 seats in the lower chamber alone. The right-of-center Liberals lost half their customary vote and with it 15 of their 20 seats in the Chamber of Deputies. The Social Democrats dropped nearly a million votes, and their parliamentary strength as a result was cut nearly in half, from 29 to 15 in the lower house. The Socialists, who had provoked last week’s election by bolting the coalition government of Christian Democratic Premier Aldo Moro, paid heavily for that decision. Instead of adding to last year’s regional gains, Italy’s third largest party fell almost 25% below 1975 and with a loss of four seats in each house was reduced to 57 Deputies and 29 Senators. Even before all returns were in, Socialist Vice Secretary Giovanni Mosca had resigned, calling for “self criticism” within the party.

The prospect of a two-party system for Italy had a doubtful appeal: the P.C.I. has not yet made clear its total commitment to democratic principles, while the B.C. is jaded and unreformed after 30 years of unrelieved power. The Communists were apologetic about scooping up so many Socialist votes, but also fatalistic. Said Central Committee Member Sergio Segre: “We did not do anything to take votes away from them. But little by little as we expand, it’s pretty clear that we do take some.” Happy over their gains, D.C. leaders considered the small-party losses regrettable, perhaps, but necessary to stop the Communists. One likened Liberals, Social Democrats and Republicans to medieval grooms “who help the knight into the saddle to go into battle.”

Fresh Government. When the new Parliament assembles, President Giovanni Leone will also begin the ritualistic consultations with party leaders about how to form a new government. The time factor is more critical than ever. The failure of the Communists to gain enough votes to take power restored some international business confidence in Italy and its sagging lira. Nonetheless, the country needs a fresh government with clear policies on wage restraints, taxation and priorities for government expenditures to get the help it needs. In an oblique reference to the returns, European Common Market Vice President Wilhelm Haferkamp last week called for an international Marshall Plan, including the U.S. and Japan, to help Italy. But Haferkamp also specified “financial aid granted under firm conditions.”

In such circumstances, another governo balneare, or caretaker “bathing season” government to get Italy through the summer, would not be encouraging. But on the basis of the elections, that may be all that Moro can get. The party’s options are limited. Christian Democrats could try to form a one-party minority government—holding over opposition parties the threat of yet another futile election if it is brought down. They could also try to broaden responsibility and create a coalition with Liberals, Republicans and Social Democrats.

But in either case, they would still require the support or at least the abstention of the Socialists, the party that still holds the political key in spite of its losses. So far the Socialists have stuck to their demand that any coalition must include the Communists, at least in the parliamentary majority. The DC. has just as stubbornly rejected such ideas.

Whatever government emerges, Italy still faces the same pre-election dilemma: governing without the Communists is difficult—perhaps impossible. The P.C.I. has now grown too powerful to be denied participation in the government altogether. The Communists are interested in ending their exclusion from even the tokens of formal power; for example, they are expected to demand the chairmanship of either the Senate or Chamber of Deputies when Parliament reconvenes this week. Berlinguer himself, whose moderation could conceivably come under intraparty fire unless he produces results, told an election-night rally in Rome: “The Christian Democrats will have to come to terms with the Communist Party and the entire left.”

For the moment, Berlinguer is not overly anxious to jeopardize the P.C.I.’s image of respectability. Nor does he want to make waves before other elections this year in West Germany and the U.S. (in which the P.C.I. favors Candidate Jimmy Carter). Beyond that, however, some formal recognition of a Communist role in decision making seems likely. Without some cooperation between its two major parties, Italy cannot possibly hope to be anything but a political-economic basket case. The only alternative would be a dramatic regeneration of the Christian Democratic Party and a corresponding decline of the Communists—which would require a near miracle of politics.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com