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ITALY: Starting Out on a Journey of No Return

5 minute read
TIME

On their knees in Naples’ Gothic cathedral, faithful worshipers waited devoutly for the city’s periodic miracle to occur: in early May, as on his feast day in September, the hardened blood of San Gennaro is said to liquefy inside the sealed glass vial in which it has been preserved since the saint’s 4th century martyrdom. This May, however, to the dismay and alarm of the worshipers, the blood of Naples’ patron saint refused to move on schedule. According to tradition, this failure occurs only when disaster is imminent. That disaster might have been the earthquake that struck Northern Italy last week (see box following page). But Naples’ Corrado Cardinal Ursi, calling for intensified prayer, identified the threat as “neopaganism,” which his flock interpreted as an oblique but unmistakable reference to the rise of Italian Communism.

Last week, as strident campaign posters blossomed on walls and telephone poles all over Italy and politicians caucused to plot national election strategies, San Gennaro was not the nation’s only leading indicator of disaster. The election was called one year ahead of schedule because a succession of weak center-left governments had been unable to solve the country’s festering economic and social problems. It is an election that few politicians really want now. The early reading was that the Communists would make parliamentary gains equal to or larger than their already sizable increase in power in regional elections last year, when they won 33.4% of the vote—and perhaps become partners in the next government. The prospect of Communists sharing national power for the first time since 1947 not only worried millions of Italians but also caused palpitations in Western Europe and the U.S.

Two-Faced Promises. The campaign was not due to start effectively until May 16, giving the candidates just five weeks before the two-day balloting commences on June 20. But already some dimensions of Italy’s most critical election in 30 years were apparent.

The Christian Democrats, it seemed, intend to fight the campaign principally on a theme of two-faced Communist promises. In the past, many Italians voted Communist as a safe but telling protest vote against the Christian Democrats, who have held power—with decreasing effectiveness—alone or in coalition ever since World War II. But this time, with the Communists now obviously strong enough to share power nationally, many of those protest voters are afraid to mark their ballots for the Communists once more, and the Christian Democrats intend to play on this fear.

Stumping in Salerno last week in a precampaign warmup, the Christian

Democrats’ party secretary, Benigno Zaccagnini, warned that any Communist victory, however narrow, would set Italy on “the road of no return.” He added, “If I could be sure that the Communists, having been voted into power, would then turn around and leave it after an election defeat, I would not have any problems of principle.” Thus Zaccagnini underlined a worry shared by many moderate voters: the Communists, who seemed earnest and engaging enough while they were only just seeking to build strength at the polls, might shift to a hard Leninist line and, having once gained power, refuse to surrender it again if they subsequently lost an election.

Communist leaders are as aware as Zaccagnini of this voter concern, and they appear to be making allowances for it even before the campaign formally opens. The posters for the Partite Comunista Italiano that appeared all over the country last week urged voters to choose the PCI and save Italy. The hammer and sickle symbol, however, was muted, as so far have been the campaign statements of party bosses. In a speech last week, Giorgio Napolitano, a top PCI leader, made a surprising and significant distinction between Communist goals this time round. “We say that Communist participation in national decisions is essential,” Napolitano said. “A Communist participation in the Cabinet itself would be desirable.”

The distinction between what was essential and what was only desirable seemed to indicate that the Communist hierarchy still feels the time is not right to enter the government as ministers. Suddenly, they seemed more interested in a supporting role as members of the parliamentary majority that shapes national policy, with Cabinet seats to come later when the mass of middle-class voters has become accustomed to the “historic compromise” with the Christian Democrats that Communists have been talking about since 1974. The Communist leaders could well be forced by their own followers, however, to join the Christian Democrats in a coalition Cabinet.

Anxious to preserve good will with which to negotiate the historic compromise after the election, the edgy Communist leaders moved cautiously last week. They practically ignored new developments in their natural campaign issue: the economy. While other West Europeans were beginning to enjoy the passing, at long last, of a stubborn recession (see ECONOMY & BUSINESS), Italians had new gloomy statistics to ponder. The lira dropped to an alltime low of 920 to the dollar, despite heavy intervention by the Bank of Italy, which spent a reported $1 billion to shore it up in March and April alone. Mean while, the balance of trade deficit, it was also announced, increased by $1.5 billion in the year’s first quarter, equivalent to the total deficit for all of last year, and imports will be severely curbed as a result. In an emergency late-night Cabinet meeting, Caretaker Premier Moro reimposed crushing restrictions on foreign exchange movements. Among other measures, Italian travelers, who are already allowed to take only $555 out of the country, henceforth must deposit half of that amount with the government 90 days ahead of any trip. That could make for a crowded summer in Italy, with citizens too put-upon to travel and foreigners rushing in to take advantage of the cheaper lira.

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