Prague, 20 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Massimo d'Alema, leader of Italy's former Communist party now known as the Democrats of the Left (DS), yesterday was given by President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro a full mandate to form the next government.
This is an important development as it shows the extent of change in Italy's political climate. It marks the first time that the former communists have been allowed to take over the government. It also provides one more confirmation that Western Europe is moving toward the left. During the last year or so, left-wing parties have come to power in France, Britain and Germany.
But whether these developments could also open a way toward government stability itself remains far from certain.
For most of the postwar period the Italian Communist party was the largest, best organized and most popular communist organization in the West. But it was prevented from getting control of the government by constantly shifting coalitions of centrist and right-wing parties, mostly led by the Christian Democrats.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the party split into several factions, with the Democrats of the Left emerging as the largest one. It adopted a moderate political and economic program. The radically leftist minority formed its own party, the Refounded Communists.
D'Alema played an important role in reshaping the original communist organization. A former head of the Communist Youth League and editor of the main communist newspaper, Unita, d'Alema took over the DS leadership four years ago and moved the party away from its Marxist roots, developing it into a major social-democratic force.
The DS provided the political backbone to the "Olive Tree" government coalition led by the departing Prime Minister Romano Prodi. That coalition collapsed earlier this month, when the majority of the Refounded Communist deputies refused to support Prodi's centrist economic policies.
Yesterday, after receiving the support of several parties from the "Olive Tree" coalition, including a minority of the Refounded Communists, but also the center-right Christian Democrats, d'Alema was finally ready to form his own government.
The support given to him by the Christian Democrats was particularly significant, heralding a possible turnaround in that party's traditional rejection of communists. Its long-term political implications, however, are unclear.
Explaining his "rapprochement" with the Christian Democrats led by former President Francesco Cossiga, d'Alema said that "it tells the country that the Cold War is over (and) that the men and ideas that openly fought for many years can also collaborate."
D'Alema's supporters suggest also that the new coalition is united by the common desire to adopt long-awaited constitutional reforms to modernize and streamline the government and its legal system.
Both the DS and the Christian Democrats also share a view that Italy's political system should be strengthened through a reduction of parties, preferably to two blocs. D'Alema has already tried to amend the constitution to facilitate that change through electoral reform, but failed. He and the Christian Democrats may try again.
But the critics of the new coalition say that it may be doomed to failure owing to fundamental differences between the left-wing DS and the center-right Christian Democrats. These are said to center on such issues as state funding for Catholic schools --DS is against, the Christian Democrats are for. Moreover, there is little doubt that each group would prefer to create a slimmed-down party system in which it could play a major role. The Christian Democrats would like to play in that system a role balancing the influence of the left and the right that, in the eyes of some observers, would simply mean a return to the traditional pattern of Italian politics of previous years.
Departing Prime Minister Prodi yesterday criticized the new coalition as representing "a halt in Italy's effort to achieve a bipolar system of government based on competition between different policies."
D'Alema countered by saying that there is a need to "rekindle the dialogue so that in the remainder or the (parliamentary term) we can tackle electoral and constitutional change."
In the meantime, Italy needs to pass an austerity budget to meet the requirements to enter the euro system on January 1, 1999. That requirement alone could well influence the choice of ministerial appointments, the government's policies, and its immediate moves.