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Why Italian Democracy Works : DEMOCRACY ITALIAN STYLE by Joseph La Palombara (Yale University Press: $25; 308 pp.)

November 01, 1987|Ann Cornelisen | Cornelisen is a writer who has lived and worked in Italy since 1954. and

In the early days after World War II, an American who loitered in the piazza of an Italian town could count on being asked two questions. First, always: "Do you know my cousin in Broccolino?" Second: "Why didn't you occupy Italy? We're not ready for democracy." Forty chaotic years and more than 40 governments later, the pundits of the piazza would seem to have been right.

But in politics, as in other things, Italy is an eccentric country, easy to lampoon and almost impossible for non-Italians, primed only with gleeful reports of scandals, to understand. It should collapse. Instead, for all its apparent anarchy with comic opera trimmings, the political system works and the country prospers.

How? Why? The answers are not simple. Indeed, they are something of a double-faced jigsaw puzzle that Joseph La Palombara, Arnold Wolfers Professor of Political Science at Yale and a former first secretary at the embassy in Rome, neatly puts together in "Democracy Italian Style." He inspects each cunningly camouflaged piece, patiently fits it in place, until from the jumble there emerges on one side a clear, even intriguing picture of government and people and, on the other, a reversed, slightly less clear one of the people and government--all accompanied by exhaustive notes and a worthless index.

The social sciences are never painless. They abound in isms and ocracies that invite and refuse definition. Democracy, for instance. The Mediterranean form, La Palombara warns, is not a facsimile of the Anglo-American. It evolved from a different history and a different culture and is, legitimately, different.

Italy's began conventionally enough with the constitution of 1948. Quirks showed up in the first elections. The Communist Party had 31% of the vote, which, over the years, it would keep, while the Christian Democratic Party, the "Catholic" party, would settle down to just over a third and the rest would be divided between a gaggle of others.

Only a coalition government was possible: A priori , the Communists were excluded.

The technique for sneaking through that mine field is an ismo--trasformismo-- a very Italian concept of ever-changing agreements, alignments and deals between the political parties and even the factions of political parties. Ephemeral as they are, these pacts act as a political gyroscope to correct any lurches of the mechanism.

The smooth, or at least inconspicuous, workings of trasformismo are abetted by an inspired anomaly of the system, which allows the passage of legislation simply by agreement, often in practice unanimous, of the appropriate parliamentary committee. Without debate. Without general vote. This method, La Palombara says, accounts for four-fifths of the laws passed, a figure hard to believe, but, if even half the laws are passed in this way, the politicians--including the Communists--obviously have room and more for their manipulations.

Now for the ocracy-- partyocracy. Cadres of astute, highly professional politicians man the parties. They see to it that the party's power, theirs after all, filters through every level of the country, into every institution. They divide the spoils. The bargaining is ferocious, but in the end they and the men they appoint control the banks, the media, much of industry, the unions, universities and arts, everything. Even which restaurant owner is granted a permit for chairs and tables in the village piazza is a political decision. High and low, everyone has his share, and--it follows--his political patron saint. The Communists too.

All the rest--the schisms, the reforms that never happen, the inveighing against corruption, against tax evasion and moonlighting, the ballyhoo--is what La Palombara calls "politics as spettacolo ," meaning staged drama. Again, something for everyone to take part in, to enjoy. He feels that Italians like it that way. Proof? That 90% vote, which he rather fancifully identifies as a form of "witnessing."

Perhaps it is so in Rome, where government is all. But the majority of Italians, 60%, do not live in cities, even provincial ones. For them the variations have more to do with the games politicians play than with their own day-to-day reality. They are neither amused nor taken in.

A VAT (Valued Added Tax)--up to 19%--is tacked onto everything they buy. Of the $4 they pay for a gallon of gas, 90% goes to the state. There is little enough they can evade. They resent the doctors, lawyers and their confreres in the professions who claim to live below the poverty level and pay taxes accordingly. They resent the corruption that swallows their money and inspires more taxes.

Yes, they vote, convinced nothing they do will bring change, and unconvinced by politicians who promise they will. They vote to keep their own personal political patron saint happy and afloat. They vote because they were trained by a law specifying that failure to vote will earn a blot on their civic records. Some simply vote to qualify for the huge discount on their railroad ticket home. Hardly "witnessing."

Today's pundits of the piazza admit that Italian democracy is-- beh-- hard to explain, but it works most of the time. And it does, primarily because Italians are as pragmatic about politics as they are about the rest of life and the political nabobs are very busy, far away in Rome.

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