236. Despatch From the Embassy in Italy to the Department of State0

No. 1362


  • The Stability of the Present Italian Government

During nearly three months of its existence the present Christian Democratic minority government of Prime Minister Segni has given [Page 516] definite proof of its viability and some signs of real durability. It seems an appropriate moment to catalogue some of its strengths and weaknesses, to inventory the positions of the other parties in the political spectrum, and to venture some tentative forecasts for the future.

Any list of strengths of the present government and DC party management must certainly start with the successful application of a form of corporate leadership which at least temporarily eclipses individual strong men. [3–1/2 lines of source text not declassified] In order to restore some unity before the next party congress, the great majority of the party leadership managed to rally behind the figure of Segni who has already achieved the status of elder statesman and therefore does not have to enter the battle for personal prestige. Party policy and political orientation of government seems to be steered by a group centered on Taviani, Colombo, Russo, and Zaccagnini, with active party management in the hands of the relatively non-controversial Moro, who has so far shown substantial finesse and ability to gain acceptance of disparate elements within the party. Despite Pope John XXIII’s reported reluctance to intervene in Italy’s domestic political affairs, the DC party as the expression of unified Catholic struggle against Communism still enjoys Church support. This is exemplified by the recent Holy Office decree condemning fellow-travelling Catholic movements (Milazzo) which threaten DC unity.1 [3 lines of source text not declassified] With this basis of strength the government has already given a good account of itself in such matters as the skillful handling of the complicated and explosive issue of government employees’ salaries, and of the foreign policy debate occasioned by the acceptance of IRBM’s. Several pieces of relatively progressive legislation originally proposed by Fanfani but rejected or delayed by Parliament have been passed by one or both houses during this honeymoon period; for example, regulation of public markets and the erga omnes law extending provisions of national collective bargaining agreements to all workers in the category concerned as a matter of legal right (the latter is opposed by the Liberals). The government is moving cautiously in the field of better rationalization and control of statal enterprises.

Unfortunately, there also remain many weaknesses in the government’s position hinging primarily on the twin facts that it does not have its own parliamentary majority and that there remain many [Page 517] divergencies of view within the DC party itself. In this situation it is necessary of course to retain the support of the three right-wing parties unless and until a different alignment can be found. At the moment, the latter does not appear to be a possibility because of the intransigent public position of opposition on the part of PSDI leader Saragat. For the present the right-wing parties seem content to give their support in return for an intangible sense of participation and probably certain negative benefits such as restraint by the government in pressing legislation objectionable to rightist interests such as certain types of taxes or an extension of regional autonomy. Trouble may come when the right-of-center parties feel the need of more tangible rewards or, conversely, when the more socially-oriented elements of the party such as the Rinnovamento and La Base currents and their labor components conclude that their interests, economic or political, are being sacrificed for the sake of conservative support.2

Probably the greatest threat to party government stability, however, is the ever-present one of conflicting personalities. [12–1/2 lines of source text not declassified]

There remain two principal milestones during the balance of the year which will test the survival ability of the present government and the present leadership of the DC party. The first of these is the Sicilian elections of June 7 and other local elections about that time. The effect of the results of these contests will not be direct or immediate, since only local issues and local personalities are involved. However, the national organizations of all parties are very definitely committed in the campaigns and the relative prestige or loss of face which they achieve will reflect on the present party leaders, particularly in the case of the Christian Democrats. Furthermore, the resulting alignments necessary to [Page 518] form a government in Sicily and elsewhere may also affect the national scene. To some extent the DC party has attempted to discount publicly the possibility of failure in the Sicilian elections and to blame it on errors of the previous regime. Therefore even if the DC suffers moderate losses (which seems probable) the party management may be able to salvage some credit for not doing worse.3 The second hurdle is of course the DC party congress which now is expected in October. Here the question of personalities and currents, [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] will be preeminent and the success of the present leaders will depend on the degree to which they are able to achieve a spirit of compromise and collaboration within the party prior to the congress, to minimize public recrimination during it, and, in the final analysis, to secure the votes needed to control the party organization. It is still too early to forecast precisely where the battle lines will be drawn in the congress, and the emergence of a different leadership would not necessarily mean the immediate overthrow of the government. The DC party congress will probably be followed shortly by the PSDI party congress, and the results of these two meetings should determine whether a more broadly based center formula is feasible prior to new national elections.

Turning to other parties, the right-hand side of the political spectrum has probably shown more dynamism in recent months than the left. On the extreme right the MSI continues to search for respectability but at the same time has shown some signs of being emboldened to adopt more extreme public positions because of its position in support of the present government. This sense of power could be somewhat increased as a result of the Sicilian regional elections. The newly created Italian Democratic Party (PDI)4 is currently showing signs of vigor after having ostensibly shed some of the more institutional and parochial aspects of its two constituent monarchist parties. It is making a somewhat amusing effort to present itself as a party to the left of the Liberals (PLI) and therefore the logical candidate for cooperation with the center-left parties and incorporation in an eventual center coalition. There is no doubt that this maneuver is giving the Liberal Party some concern and may cause it some trouble over the short term. However, since the PLI represents a definite political and economic element in the community it will probably retain substantially its present strength over the foreseeable future. The PDI having eclipsed its main institutional reason for existence [Page 519] would seem to have a more uncertain future. It does, however, have a substantial “proletariat following on an area basis, principally in the south, and if it can become an effective spokesman for the interests of this group it may become a real force.

During the period since the PSI Naples congress all of the problems of “autonomy” have had a public airing and the PSI has not passed the test on any of them.5 After some slightly promising progress on organization matters the party seems to have run up against a basic contradiction. It is not now viable as an independent and discriminating associate of the far left for financial and economic reasons. Yet it cannot, without breaking the united popular front concept, become a really democratic party and achieve the material benefits of an actual or potential participant in the governing process. The basic difficulty is probably the financial one. In under-employed Italy the economic well-being of the members of the party apparatus is an over-riding consideration. The party has lost old channels of support and has not acquired new ones. On the other hand, it would be a mistake to underestimate the role of the ideological struggle which impedes, if it in fact does not absolutely prevent, a large number of socialists from deserting maximalism and working-class unity and considering cooperation with pro-clerical elements they have combated for generations. Although it appears that the amalgamation of the dissident PSDI element forming the MUIS into the PSI will be concluded within a matter of days, this group has lost most of its grass roots support and will not contribute much to the PSI. The bourgeois respectability of this year’s May Day celebrations was merely an outward manifestation of the fact that the entire left-wing movement has lost much of its dynamism and, as observed by a recent DC commentator, has now become essentially a conservative force attempting to protect its base organizations in the labor, cooperative and local government fields. This is not to dismiss the Communist problem as insignificant nor to overlook its great subversive potential but merely to take what comfort is available from an observable qualitative deterioration in this opposition. Quantitatively, too, there have been some slight encouraging signs, with reported lessening in Communist membership and CGIL losses in the recent FIAT shop steward elections, but this cannot be said to have reached the proportions of a trend and may easily be reversed with some regional electoral successes or dramatic psychological developments in the international field.

The center left, about which there was considerable hand-wringing at the time of the disintegration of the Fanfani government and the [Page 520] secession of the MUIS from the PSDI, can now be said to have emerged from its period of shock and shown signs of considerable vitality. As noted above, the rank and file losses through the MUIS defection have proved to be much smaller than expected and should be more than made up both numerically and psychologically after the anticipated merger of Eugenio Reale’s Alleanza Socialista into the PSDI becomes a fact. The political tone of both the PSDI and the PRI was convincingly demonstrated as being both democratic and pro-Western when they stood staunchly by the side of the government and the Western alliance in the IRBM debate. Particularly noteworthy in this was the unequivocal position of left-wing PRI leader and editor of La Voce Repubblicana Ugo La Malfa. It is true that the PSDI under Saragat’s leadership has rather vociferously affirmed its continued opposition to the present Segni government and has indicated that it will not participate in a center coalition probably until after the next elections. It is the Embassy’s judgment, however, that this should be considered as a normal cyclical validation of the party’s claim to opposition to conservative government. Also, the competition between Saragat and Nenni for undecided and autonomist support is currently in a more than normally acute phase. This opposition may well continue for a year or two or even until the next elections, but there is ample historical precedent for believing that it is by no means immutable and that PSDI as well as PRI participation in or support of a future government can be considered a definite possibility whenever the situation really demands it. For an example, should the rightist parties appear to be obtaining a dominance in policy seriously injurious to the interests of its constituents, the PSDI could be expected to join in support of the considerable progressive sentiment in the DC party. At the moment, this is not mathematically feasible but it might become so by the shift in attitude or allegiance of a few deputies within a surprisingly short time.

In summary, the present government has shown itself a stable one and there is no reason to think that it will not continue very comfortably in office at least until after the DC party congress. Its future after that time or its orderly voluntary transition into a broader-based coalition will depend upon the success which Moro and his supporters have in tranquilizing the contending ambitions of [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] the [less than 1 line of source text no declassified] notabili. Of these, Fanfani is of course the man most to be reckoned with. There is reason to believe that he still retains substantial grass roots support, although he has disaffected a sufficient number of party stalwarts to make it doubtful that he alone can actually control the party soon again. With luck this government can continue for another year. A much longer life is not a reasonable expectancy under Italian political conditions. But there are no basic issues in sight which would seriously threaten the [Page 521] continuance of the government. The most difficult foreign policy issues (IRBM’s, Italian prestige in Western councils) have recently been surmounted. The domestic economic situation is good and improving, with some signs of progress on the basic problems of unemployment and regional depression. Granted, there is still a long way to go. Personal differences may eventually cause a re-shuffling of the government. While we should never forget that Italy has had a remarkably short experience with modern democracy, barring radical changes domestically or an international cataclysm, the regime itself does not seem to be in danger.

For the Ambassador:
H. G. Torbert, Jr.
Counselor of Embassy
  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 765.00/5–1959. Confidential. Drafted by Torbert and the members of the Embassy Political Staff.
  2. Zellerbach commented on this March 25 decree in airgram 453, April 16, as follows: “Its total effect on forthcoming regional elections in Sicily and Val d’ Aosta cannot be predicted in view of substantial traditional anti-clerical tendencies but in Sicily especially it may reduce considerably Milazzo’s chances to whittle away at DC electorate. To this extent decree may help to convince Milazzo of futility his operation and may induce him if not now perhaps after election to return to DC fold.” (Ibid., 765.00/4–1659)
  3. This raises an interesting point alluded to by various Italian commentators as to the relation between theory or doctrine and practice in Italian politics. In the theory, employed for polemic purposes by both sides, the appearance and the label is the important thing. Thus, to the opposition, this is a “rightist” government because it depends on votes of right-wing parties and pays lip service to free enterprise as opposed to statism. Similarly, Fanfani had a “leftist” government because he depended on left-of-center support, emphasized the need for budgetary assistance to promote economic welfare and attacked private vested interests; he had an “adventuristic” foreign policy which “threatened the NATO orientation and relations with the US” because he attempted some slight initiative in the Middle East and South America. As a matter of practice, Fanfani was the most cooperative of supporters of US and NATO policy and followed a relatively conservative fiscal policy; whereas the performance of the Segni government to date has appeared anything but reactionary—it has, for example, revived discussion of the “Vanoni plan”. The fact is, that in Italy as elsewhere government supported by conservatives is in a better position (although it may or may not take advantage of the fact) to enact progressive social legislation than a left-supported one because it is not so vulnerable to attack from the right. The leaders of the various political factions cannot admit this publicly. The majority of voters, however, may not be so impressed with dialectics and doctrinal labels as with bread and butter accomplishments. [Footnote in the source text.]
  4. In the Sicilian regional elections of June 7, the Christian Democrats lost three seats in the regional assembly. The secessionist Christian Democrat Silvio Milazzo was elected president of the region by a coalition of parties from Communist to Fascist, narrowly defeating the Christian Democratic candidate.
  5. The Italian Democratic Party was formed by the fusion of the Popular Monarchist Party and National Monarchist Party on April 11.
  6. The Socialist Party continued to oppose Italian participation in NATO and the stationing of IRBM missiles in Italy.