For many or most Italian today's voting will mean release from massive boredom. No amount of hack campaign oratory could rouse their interest in an election largely regarded as a useless exercise, which every party leader in the country has somehow waffled through without once uttering a simple declarative sentence.
This is the third time in a row that an Italian parliament has been dissolved as unworkable before living out its full term. In 1972 that produced a new parliament a shade less workable than its predecessor. The next, in 1976, was scarcely workable at all. The one in the making now might start out looking different, even a lot different. But the sympthom of pathological distress in Italian politics would still be there.
What is almost certainly going to be different in this incoming parliament is the comparative strength of Italy's huge Communist and Christian Democratic formations. After gaining steadily on the fuling Catholic party for three decades, the Communists were right on its heel by 1976. If they didn't quite make the famour sorpasso - actually overtaking the Christian Democrats to become Parliament's biggest party - they did narrow the gap to a mere 4 percent. (The score was 34.4 to 38.6 percent.) From then on, the "ineluctable" entrance into the government, as the late Republican leader Ugo La Malfa put it, was presumably only a matter of time.
Nobody thinks so any more. By all accounts, the Communists themselves are braced now for their first electoral loss since 1948. The only real doubt is whether their slippage will be 1 or 2, or 3 or 4 or more percentage points. If the Christian Democrats should pick up as much again, as expected, the two parties could wind up something like 10 percent apart: a yawning chasm that could theoretically change Italy's whole political landscape. But theories like that rarely have much to do with Italian realities.
The plainest of these realities is that Italy's ruling Catholic party is never going to give up the ultimate prospect of a partnership with the Communists unless and until they can count on something else as good or better. And for all the arithmetical reassurance they might find in the new parliament, that - now as always - is just the trouble.
The Catholic-Communist experimental partnership starting after that 1976 election never got past the stage of Communist membership in a government majority. Long before they might have moved on to a place in the government itself, they themselves pulled out. By their own reckoning and everybody else's, the whole thing was a flop. The voted this weekend will be the price of their mistake - a measure of how deeply they have disappointed the public's rising expectations - and they are unlikely to be so careless a second time. But neither they nor their main Christian Democratic interlocutors would swear they'll never do it again.
Several influential leaders on both sides think of this flop as just a temporary setback. They are still ardently interested in a enduring partnership - a regime, in fact - for their mutual defense and profit. The country as a whole would get stability with virtually no opposition (or so their thinking goes). The Communits would finally get a sizable share of power and patronage, and they would in exchange assure the ministerial posts and perks of aging Christian Democratic notables until the latter are finally dislodged by what subalterns irreverently call the biological solution.
On the other hand, plenty of leaders on both sides want nothing of the sort. What with terrorists and autonomist "ultras" outflanking them on the left and spreading insubordination among Europe's most radicalized workers, the Italian Communists have plenty of reason to worry about rejoining the establishment. The fact that they simply can't deliver that working class - amply demonstrated over the last three years - takes quite a shine off their charms for those Christian Democrats who have doublted the Communist's genuine usefulness all along. Furthermore, they still don't think these Communists have come far enough toward Western democratic ways to be acceptable allies. Neither, by now, do the smaller Republican, Social Democratic and Socialist parties, who were all gungho for a Communist alliance in the stirring days of 1976.
The sad truth, though, is that the pooled strenght of all of Italy's smaller Democratic parties runs to well under 20 percent: conservative Liberals 1 percent, Republicans and Social Democrats 3 percent each, the Socialists 9 1/2 percent, which, with luck this weekend, might hit 10. None, unfortunately including a Socialist Party trying hard to become a credible alternative to the Communists, expects to pick up anything extra to speak of in this election. Those extra votes the Socialists had their eye on seem likely to go to Marco Pannella's mixed bag of libertarians, women's libbers, ultra-left student Marxists, professional protesters and failed ex-some-party-or-other deputies now running on his Radical Party ticket instead.
Pannella, whose Radical Party may get anywhere from 3 percent to 5 percent of the vote, is no friend of any Christian Democratic government, still less a potential ally. That leaves the other small democratic parties - all of them together, what's more - as the only alternative to yet another Catholic-Communist partnership, however this election may go. Even at their best, they would seem to be something less than the trusty government henchmen Italy needs in these parlous times. And to be at their best, every one of them would have to live in heavenly harmony with every other one, not to mention their Christian Democratic big brothers - a state of grace this postwar republic hasn't yet achieved since it was born.
Not that the news from Italy is all bad. Some could turn out to be pretty good. Those who have been fighting here to reconstruct a strong and stable government are still more likely than not to be stonewalled in the months ahead. But they can at least draw comfort from a probably sizable shift of public opinion where, in a very special way, it does count: not so much reflecting greater faith in the Christian Democrats as greater skepticism about the Communist Party's magical powers. For Italy of all countries, that is hardly a gift to be scorned. CAPTION: Picture, An official prepares a polling station in Rome for today's elections.