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Craxi Power: Big Man of Small Party

August 10, 1986|George Armstrong | George Armstrong is an American correspondent based in Rome

ROME — The latest Italian government crisis opened in June with Bettino Craxi's resignation as premier; it ended on Friday when Craxi's second cabinet won a vote of confidence in Parliament. This was not the usual mid-summer Italian political crisis, the kind seen almost 40 times since World War II.

For one thing, this may have been the first crisis to be understood clearly by the public. It therefore could turn out to boomerang for the Christian Democratic Party that provoked the problem. In putting its cards on the table for all to see, the Catholic Christian Democrats broke political rules as well.

Since the 1983 general elections, Italy has had four governments, each headed by a premier whose party strength could only be envied by Harold Stassen. The Republican Party, with only 2% of the national vote, saw its leader, Giovanni Spadolini, enthroned twice (for a total reign of 18 months) as the nation's leader. He was followed by the Socialist leader, Craxi, whose party is the country's third in size, having roughly one-third fewer votes than either the Christian Democrats or the Communists.

Both Spadolini and Craxi were the first non-Christian Democrat premiers in Italy's confused modern history. In both cases, their governments were coalitions of Christian Democrats and four minor parties.

The reason the leading Christian Democrats allowed such an arrangement (while assuring that they had more than 50% of the Cabinet seats), was stagnation; after 40 years in power they had a lot of stable-cleaning to do and they lacked a leader with a fresh image.

No one, inside or outside the largest party, could have foreseen that Craxi would remain premier for more than 1,000 days with his first government. His comparatively long tenure was in part a product of continuing disarray among the Christian Democrats, in part Craxi's clever way of asking that certain bills he favored also be presented as votes of confidence.

In the Chamber of Deputies, confidence votes are the only ballots that are not secret. By insisting on frequent, open confidence votes, Craxi knew that he could not be torpedoed by coalition partners.

Then on June 26, after a routine confidence vote, unrelated to any legislation, came two secret votes on two ordinary government-sponsored bills. Within 20 minutes of Craxi's winning the Chamber's confidence, both his bills were defeated. Furtively, one might say. Craxi was told he should then do the honorable thing--resign. He did.

The Christian Democrats had been slowly realizing that while Craxi will never win a contest for being Mr. Sympatico with the public, he had built up a reputation for being a tough leader. Public opinion polls showed that 66% of the people thought he was doing a good job. (Mostly from his constant image-making, since little of importance has been accomplished.)

The Christian Democrats made it clear that Craxi was expected to step aside to make way for one of their own men "on the hallowed principle of rotation"--a principle not practiced before. They then said that he could withdraw this resignation if he agreed to resign again in October. After a few weeks of negotiations, the CD Party tried compromise: If not October resignation, then what about March? Craxi, the man of steel, whose foes and fans half-jokingly often change his first name into "Benito," said he would never accept a mandate with a guillotine clause.

Eventually that is what he did. He is now back in the premier's chair only until the March deadline, and he put it in writing. "I've long been saying I wanted to leave this job and take up the reins of the party's affairs again," is the way he explains this switch in his once proud stance.

March also suits Craxi's ambition to appear at his party's national convention as the premier--or as one who has just left office for the good of the party.

New national elections must be held in the spring of 1988. But almost everyone thinks they will be held earlier, after the CD Party has put its man in power and one of the smaller parties scuttles the coalition in a secret Parliament vote.

Craxi can present himself to the voters as the most long-lasting of postwar premiers. In Italy, one votes first for a party and then, if one wants to, for a candidate on the party's ballot of some 20 names. Then the party--or parties--with the most votes get together and choose the premier among themselves. But the next time around, Craxi will likely enjoy a huge advantage from his apparent "success."

One of Craxi's major efforts of the first 1,000 days was building the power of Italy's premier, trying to make the position similar to that of the British prime minister. In sometimes subtle, sometimes blatant ways he has managed to strengthen public perception of the job, through his growing control over the state-owned TV network, while already holding the three commercial networks tight in his fist.

Not bad, for the leader of a party that enjoys the support of only 11% of the voters.

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