In June 1976 when the final ballot in Italy's national election was tallied, Count Luigi Rossi di Montelera was flabbergasted. A first-time Christian Democratic reformist candidate from Turin with only lukewarm support from the local party machine, he had expected to be "the first of the non-elected" on the ruling Christian Democratic Party's list.

Instead, Rossi di Montelera, 31, polled more votes than any other single Christian Democrat in the area. The turnout was exceptional in a proportional system of voting where most people vote for a party rather than a man. yet, despite this resounding triumph, Rossi di Montelera is today as much the low man on the party totem pole that he was at the start.

He is not alone. A second reformer, Mario Segni, a 38-year-old Sardinian, is still a relatively unknown member of Parliament even though his first candidacy won him second place among the island's Christian Democrats.

A third newly-elected Christian Democratic deputy, Massimo de Carolis, 37, polled more than 150,000 votes in Milan to become the politician with the fourth highest vote total in the country and is somewhat better known. But to win even a minimum of potential influence, he has had to rely on skillful use of press and public opinion rather than on help from the party's traditional bosses.

Faced with the threat of a Communist Party victory in the June 1976 elections, the Christian Democratic Party's top leaders gave ample lip service to reform and added, often grudgingly, representatives of the younger generation to their list of candidates.

The result was an enthusiastic voter response to both new names and reformist ideas that led to the election of scores of Christian Democratic newcomers. nevertheless, 18 monts later the party's freshmen reformers are having a tough time scaling the walls of party influence and power.

Party Secretary Benigno Zaccagnini, 64, who took office in July 1975, has made repeated appeals for change, engineering a few important structural innovations. He enjoys a reputation for honesty and proressiveness unusual among the party's top leaders.

But political competition with the increasingly influential Communists has forced Zaccagnini to put party unity before reform. The reformist deputies and senators realize that if the Christian Democratic Party is to be transformed into a modern, efficient and opinion-oriented party that can hold its own against the Communists, they will have to do it alone.

But it is not going to be easy. Over the last 30 years the roster of Christian Democratic leaders has changed little. Young Christian Democratic members of Parliament have little influence in party councils and an intricate system of organized party factions has allowed established bosses to keep power in their own hands.

The power of the party's factions, set up the late 1950s, and of most of the traditional bosses, is based on a complicated and corruption prone system that gives a voice in party organs only to those claiming to represent a substantial group of rank and file members.

"Things are changing now, but for decades the party was run as if it were a private corporation which chooses its stockholders by invitation", said Segni.

When the newly elected deputies took their seats at Palazzo Montecitorio, which houses the chamber of deputies in downtown Rome, they quickly discovered that they were at a disadvantage.

"The deputy counts for nothing," says Rossi di Montelera. "All the major decisions are made somewhere else." He recalls that when he first arrived at her chamber he found instructions telling him to vote for Pietro Ingrao, a Communist, as president of that body, even though his election campaign - like that of the party as a whole - had been strongly anti-Communist.

De Carolis said the young deputies, who currently have no vote at the party's national congress, are further hamstrung by lack of funds and by insufficient contacts in Italy's state agencies and city newspapers. They also run the risk of being ostracized if they appear to be too independent or ignore party orders.

Nevertheless, many of the young reformists, who have established good relationships with American embassy officials, are convicted that their work in Parliament ultimately will have a positive effect. In recent months they have succeeded in puting together a group of between 70 and 100 deputies who are willing to challenge the party hierarchy on particular issues, like the voting system for the forthcoming European Parliament elections, and the postponement of this November's local elections.

"Our strength will be in the realm of ideas," said de Carolis, who believes that the neophytes' "new way" of politics will eventually replace an old system run by aging and old-fashioned men.

According to Segni, the oldtimers have sealed their own doom by giving priority to power for power's sake and neglecting political choices.

"The party will have to change because the country is changing," he said.

"But there is one problem," he added. "The fact is that change takes time and it's hard to tell whether we'll reach our goal before the Communists come to power."