Sicilians have delivered a vote of confidence in the continued rule of Prime Minister Bettino Craxi's five-party coalition government, despite a concerted effort by the dominant Christian Democratic Party to gain a regional mandate to replace Craxi.
Until the island's 4 million voters went to the polls yesterday, the election for the region's 90-seat governing council had appeared to be a national contest between Craxi, already in power longer than any prime minister since World War II, and Ciriaco de Mita, the powerful boss of the Christian Democratic Party who recently has been campaigning to unseat the Socialist prime minister.
But the final vote count this afternoon showed only minor shifts of voter preference between the two parties over the last regional election four years ago. The consensus among analysts was that yesterday's vote had been for stability and continuity, not change.
"From the ballot box there has emerged an indication that the voters prefer stability," said Craxi, who has been in power almost three years.
Political analysts from both parties said today that they expected the vote would have no significant impact on the national government and that Craxi's political blancing act within the coalition would continue at least through this year, if not until the end of the current parliament in 1987.
The Christian Democrats, Italy's largest party and the one that has traditionally dominated Sicilian politics, again led the vote, with 38.8 percent, down 1.5 percentage points from their 1981 total but up a full percentage point from their disappointing showing in 1985 provincial elections.
The party lost two seats in the 90-seat Regional Council from the 38 they won in 1981.
The country's second-largest vote getter, the Italian Communist Party, got 19.4 percent of the vote this time, compared to 20.6 in 198l. It too lost a seat.
The Socialists just held their own, despite earlier optimism that Craxi's popularity in national polls might bring the party a significant rise in votes.
Instead, however, the Socialists lost one-tenth of a percentage point, ending up with 15 percent of the vote and 14 seats in the council, the same as in 1981.
Minor parties -- ranging from the neofascist National Socialist Movement on the extreme right to the tiny Proletarian Democracy on the extreme left -- seemed to have garnered the votes lost by the leading parties, with the biggest gains going to the Republican and Social Democratic parties, which belong to Craxi's coalition.
Although the issues in the campaign were officially local -- high unemployment, lack of economic development and the pervasive power of the Mafia -- the dominant issue was the relative merits of Craxi and de Mita. They waged bitter campaigns against each other that overshadowed all other issues.
Craxi is supported by his own Socialists, the Christian Democrats, the Republicans, the Social Democrats and the rightist Liberals.
Given the balanced and apparently unchanging relationship between the parties in Craxi's coalition, de Mita sought to promote the notion that, while the coalition should continue to govern, it should alternate the prime ministership between the Socialists and the Christian Democrats.
Craxi said that if the coalition changed its leadership to Christian Democrat, he would dissolve the government and hold an election.