ITALIAN ELECTIONS do not settle questions, but rather defer them. The previous coalition government collapsed in a quarrel between the strongest of the partners, the Christian Democrats and the Socialists, over who most urgently deserved to be premier. The voters this week rewarded the former premier Bettino Craxi, a Socialist -- but rewarded him only in moderation. The Socialists got 14 percent of the vote, up three points from the previous election four years ago. The Christian Democrats got 34 percent, also up a little from the last time. In effect, the voters seem to have told the politicians to figure it out for themselves.

The biggest loser, the Communist Party, suffers from what it would call an internal contradiction. To grow, it needs to keep recruiting in Italy's expanding middle class as it did with some success in the 1970s. But a lot of the present membership resents and resists this unseemly pursuit of the bourgeoisie, and seeks purity rather than power. It's tempting to think that Italy may be following the French pattern, in which the Socialist Party rose rapidly at the expense of the Communists. That might offer Italy the kind of effective, non-Marxist opposition party that it will need if it is ever to have strong government.

But unlike the French, Italians distrust the idea of strong government. In all of Italy's national experience there has been only one memorably dramatic and adventurous government -- Mussolini's Fascism, which led the country into the unimaginable catastrophes of World War II. Ever since then, most Italians have thought it prudent to get along with as little government as possible.

Over the years the dominant Christian Democratic Party has evolved into a patronage machine that, like most machines, is interested in very little beyond keeping itself in power. It has been weakened in the past decade by a series of scandals, and the Socialists, seizing their opportunity with considerable skill, have given the country an example of a more vigorous kind of politics. But this week's returns suggest they haven't won over any great number of voters so far.

Is that irrational? With weak and fragmented governments, Italians over the past generation have achieved both immense prosperity and profound stability. NATO protects the country from the only visible foreign threat. The Common Market encourages the economy to grow, and it is growing at one of the fastest rates in Europe. Most Italians, according to the returns, find it hard to think that the time has come for any very great change.