At the last minute, the long-scheduled soccer game between the city councils of Milan and nearby Monza was called off. "Rain?" asked the naive foreigner. "No," answered the cynical Milan assemblyman, "politics."
The match was cancelled when Milan's ruling Communists "advised" its four players against participating in the competition between two teams whose members had been chosen on an almost strictly proportional basis reflecting the composition of the two city councils.
The Communists backed out of the game after press reports revealed a Communist-Christian Democratic agreement excluding representatives of right and left-wing extremist parties from the Milan team's lineup.
The incident revealed the often grotesque extent to which politicization, in terms of party affiliation, now dominates all official and semi-official activities in Italy.
Patronage systems and political payoffs exist in most countries, but lottizzazione, the Italian spoils system that distrubutes most public jobs here, is designed only in part to repay political favors with prestigious jobs.
Its major role in this multiparty system is to extend the power of the major parties into as many sectors of national life as possible.
"In Italy, the party is king," one political scientist said.
"And its realm is now so extensive that the concept of professionalism is beginning to lose ite meaning."
Party strength, national and local is the primary criterion for top level managerial appointnments in Italy's thousands of public bodies and corporations. City, provincial and regional administrations appoint the presidents, managing directors and boards of directors of bodies as various as hospitals; central dairies; utilities; transport companies; charitable, welfare and housing institution; state opera and theater companies, and banks.
The same process is repeated nationally, where the central government has direct or indirect control over top appointments at the national banks, universities and research centers as well as at hundreds of state industries, the National Electricity Board, the Venice art festival, the railways and the state-run radio and television system.
Most Italian cities are now run by coalitions of several of Italy's eight parties, and a minority Christian Democratic national government is supported by five other parties, including the Communists. This means that agreements seeking proportionality are the order of te day.
Thus the board of directors of the Italian radio and television system includes six Christian Democrats, four Communists, three Socialists, a Social Democrat, a Republican and a Liberal. The presidents of the Venice art festival and of La Scala opera in Milan are Socialists, while Christian Democrats head up the Electricity Board, the Bank of Rome, and major state holding corporations like the National Hydrocarbons Agency and the Institute for Industrial Reconstruction.
This system, which many Italian politicians insist is a guarantee of pluralism, began in the early 1960s when the Socialists first joined the national government and pressured the Christian Democrats into giving up their monopoly over what has come to be called the sub-government.
The Christian Democrats are still predominate - for example, they control 79 of 80 savings banks - but they have turned over a substantial slice of the pie to the Socialists.
More recently the Communists have gotten into the act, primarily on the local level where they now control scores of city and provincial administration. They are formally opposed to the current system, however, and prefer to be represented by independent experts instead of party members.
Such all-encompassing politicization, however, has had far-reaching effects.
It has contributed to the profound disaffection that now characterizes Italy's often jobless youths who are painfully aware that the few jobs now available are likely to be filled only on a political basis.
Thus a 30-year old aspiring television producer has spent three years desperately trying to court family contacts among Christian Democrats and Socialists even though she herself votes Communist. An unemployed 28-year-old with an economics degree is depressed because his family has no political connections. Recent job openings at the Italian national news agency went to children of three top Christian Democrats.
Disaffection is not limited to the young. The radio-television system's managing director, a professional with close ties to the Christian Democrats, is threatening to resign in protest against an organization that bases major decisions on political criteria.
Asked how many party appointments tend to go untrained or incompetent persons, a disgruntled young Christian Democratic parliamentarian bitterly replied, "all of them," although he later added that there are a few exceptions.
Cultural activities raise the issue of just what connection should exist between political pluralism and art. A young consultant for the theatre company of a city with a left-wing administration was enraged by hesitation over his avantgarde selections for the season's program.
"The Christian Democrats might not like these," he was told.
Constitutional lawyer Franco Bassanini says the current system developed largely because public bodies have become agencies for private gain.
Political scientists trace the origin of the present system to past reliance on such governmental and quasi-governmental power positions as sources of party financing. This ended in January 1976, when government took over financing Italian parties. Over the years, however, the parties became so important that they gradually took over many of the functions that elsewhere are carried out by elected assemblies, private associations and individual citizens.
For internally divided parties like the Christian Democrats and the Socialists, the situation is even more complex. "Deciding how many positions my party will get is fairly easy," said a Milan Christian Democratic assembly man.
The hard part, he said, is the lengthy negotiating among the party's eight factions. That procedure involves a complex point system weighing different types of appointments and the use of a party manual assigning percentages to each internal group.
"It even gets to the point where a faction might try to get hold of a bank presidency in order to later barter it for two slots on the transportation board," he said. "It's like monopoly, but political of course."