Italians Prepare for Vote under Electoral Reform Aim to Create Two-Party System Falters as Groups Seek New Alliances

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WITH their country still reeling from an unprecedented crisis, the Italians are preparing to elect a new Parliament.

They will have the opportunity to sweep away a generation of politicians discredited in the Tangentopoli bribery and corruption scandal and in judicial probes into links between politicians and organized crime.

"In Italian, we say, `Better late than never,' " says Andrea Scrosati, spokesman for the clean-government, anti-Mafia Rete party.

On Jan. 16, President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro dissolved Parliament, by far the Italian Republic's shortest-lived (651 days). Prime Minister Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, who remains in office until after the vote, then announced the election for March 27. That date sparked immediate controversy, since it coincides with the Jewish Passover, on which practicing Jews are forbidden to vote. The government is considering issuing a decree to keep the polls open through March 28.

Politicians, meanwhile, are still far from conforming to the spirit of an electoral-reform referendum overwhelmingly approved last June by their fellow citizens. Its promoters envisioned a liberal and a conservative party replacing the current dozen national parties, but there has been little action in this direction. Factions, factions

Noberto Bobbio, a respected elder political thinker, wrote recently in La Stampa newspaper that to develop a two-party system of conservatives and liberals, Italy must renounce anticommunism and antifascism (which stubbornly linger as political points of reference) and must also abandon the idea of a Roman Catholic political party.

The pope this month, however, urged political unity on Italy's Catholics, which was widely seen as a call to continue to vote en masse for an explicitly Catholic formation.

That party, the Christian Democratic Party (DC), was once Italy's largest. Hard hit by Tangentopoli, it met on Jan. 18 to create the Italian Popular Party and, it hopes, a new image. Off-center party

But in its waning hours the DC was rife with division, with some members seeking a coalition with the Democratic Party of the Left (the PDS or ex-communists), some pining for the historic center and refusing to join the new Popular Party, and some looking to the right for alliances with the populist Northern League (provided it renounces separatism) or with media magnate Silvio Berlusconi, who continues to urge the conservatives to unite against the PDS while still not officially launching his own party.

Reformers in the PDS-led left-wing coalition, which is predicted to win the most votes, see this election as crucial for moving ahead with change and bringing the country into line with European Union standards.

"We are very determined that there will be no one in the coalition that brings back memories of the old-style politics," Mr. …