ROME — Gianfranco Fini and Ilona Staller, symbols of yesterday's dictatorship and today's sensationalism, stare across an unbridgeable gap in the same Italian Parliament.
Fini is Italy's latest Il Duce. Staller is a practicing porn queen.
Political opposites, they typify the chaos of Italian democracy today amid growing calls for reform of the splintery political system that has encouraged such confusion.
The exuberant Fini, 35, is an admirer of former dictator Benito Mussolini and the new leader of Italian neo-fascists. His Movimento Sociale Italiano, which won 5.9% of the vote in the last national elections, is Italy's fourth-largest political party.
Lectures on Free Love
The exhibitionist Staller, 36, lectures Parliament on the virtues of free love as representative of the Radical Party, which got 2.6% of the vote last June. On weekends, she becomes Cicciolina, the mistress of night club shows sometimes interrupted by the police.
Forty years ago this week, Italy, which had emerged from World War II a scarred and backward agrarian nation under a discredited monarchy, enacted a new republican constitution that prescribed the broadest possible multi-party democracy.
It has been government by fragments ever since; an alphabet soup of parties and movements sharing power and its spoils in a closed winners' circle that Italians have come to know scornfully as partitocrazia-- or aristocracy of the political party.
Four dozen Italian governments have come and gone in four decades, most of them weak, some incoherent, all the product of loud, laborious coalitions in which the tail has sometimes wagged the dog.
Along the way, Italy transformed itself into one of the world's great industrial powers. Today, Romans earn more and live better than Londoners. Development has been achieved, many Italians insist, not because of their governments, but in spite of them.
Prosperity intensifies an across-the-board cry for institutional reform that would streamline and strengthen government to match the society it is supposed to direct. La Grande Riforma, as it is called, is less a new idea than an idea whose time appears to have come.
Reform, its supporters say, would mute mounting popular disaffection with a system that most Italians believe has outlived its purpose.
The elusive goal is for stable governments with enough decision-making authority to more effectively confront complexities of the technological age, whether in implementing transnational accords or controlling paralyzing waves of wildcat strikes.
Symptomatic of the quickening national debate was the joint public appeal last month by 30 prominent Italians in culture, science and industry for electoral reform, and the editorial warning by the priest-editor of Italy's largest Jesuit magazine that "government cannot exist at the mercy of the parties and depend only on their interests."
Lame Duck in Power
Italy's current government, a lame duck from the day of its birth five months ago, is an advertisement for reform.
In November, the Liberal Party, with 2.1% of the vote, forced the resignation of Christian Democratic Prime Minister Giovanni Goria, its erstwhile ally, over a modest disagreement on financial policy. After days of political maneuvering spiced with torrents of black coffee and gales of cigarette smoke, the Liberals kissed and made up.
That left Goria tenuously in office and commentators more outraged than ever at the time wasted and the effort consumed in resolving a fabricated crisis.
The Liberal Party is one of 14 parties and factions represented in the chamber of deputies, although only four of them received more than 5% of the total vote.
Boost for Radicals
Staller, most often seen about town with one breast exposed, gave a boost to the Radicals, who nevertheless meet this weekend--for the second time in two years--to decide whether to quit Italian politics.
"After their experience with Fascism, the post-war Italians sought a constitution that would ensure minority representation while preventing domination by any single party," said David Travis, an Italy specialist at the University of Washington. "They could not have anticipated that two hostile parties would regularly split two-thirds of the vote, leaving small parties with disproportionate influence in the formation of governments."
The Christian Democrats, who received 34.3% of the vote in the last election, and the Communists, who got 26.6%, are the antithetical lions of Italian politics. For the 40-year life of the current constitution, the Christian Democrats have ruled Italy in coalition with smaller parties equally determined to keep the second-place Communists from office.
Small Vote, Big Voice