Italy set to vote on radical overhaul of electoral system

Italian Premier Matteo Renzi reviews the honor guard as he waits to welcome Turkmenistan's President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov at Chigi place Premier's office, in Rome, Monday, May 4, 2015. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

ROME: Italy's parliament was set Monday to approve a radical new electoral law designed to end decades of political instability by ensuring that elections always produce governments with working majorities.

The National Assembly was due to vote on a bill backed by Prime Minister Mateo Renzi in the evening with the center-left government expected to secure a comfortable majority after winning three related confidence votes last week.

The bill, which would guarantee a majority of seats in parliament to the party that gets the most votes in an election, is seen by Renzi as central to his broader reform agenda.

But it has triggered strong opposition from political rivals who believe the youthful premier is seeking to consolidate his grip on power, and some misgivings among academics and intellectuals who fear too much power will be concentrated in the hands of the cabinet.

Renzi has rebuffed charges of a power grab, saying Italy has to move towards something similar to the two-party systems in place in many other democracies if it is to address serious and deep-rooted problems in its economy, and administrative, judicial and political systems.

"The electoral law has become a symbol. For years Italians were used to a political class that promised a lot and did nothing," Renzi said ahead of the vote.

"This time around, we said that we will reach our goals and we are doing so. If all goes well, we will be able to say that we have turned a page of utmost importance for our country," he said.

That view was endorsed by Marc Lazar, an Italy expert at Paris's elite Sciences Po graduate school.

"It is an important date for Italy. It may be the umpteenth reform of the electoral law but this one is important, which explains why the debate has been so vigorous," Lazar told AFP.

"It will give the country political stability - a major issue for Italian politics will be finally resolved."

Lazar said fears of a possible threat to democracy were exaggerated but understandable given Italy's experience of fascism.

For Renzi, the expected victory on electoral reform follows success last year in forcing through labor market reforms that were welcomed by the business world but denounced by Italy's once powerful trade unions.

He has also initiated constitutional reform that will effectively abolish the Senate, the upper house of parliament which currently enjoys extensive powers to block and delay legislation, and replace it with a much less influential second chamber made up of regional representatives.

The Senate reform is currently going through parliament with most analysts expecting it to be approved by the end of this year. The new electoral law is due to come into force in 2016.

Renzi, a former mayor of Florence, has also pledged to transform Italy's snail-based judicial system and says his biggest reform challenge will be to shake up the education system.

But with the economy still struggling and unemployment having recently started rising again from record highs, the jury is still out on whether Renzi can deliver on his self-declared goal of fundamentally changing Italy.

"In the end, Italians will judge him on other things than this electoral law," Lazar said. "Can he turn the economy around and stop Italy's decline?"

Renzi said lawmakers had a simple choice to make Monday: back him or sack him.

"They can tell me 'that's enough, leave,' but I am not here to remain in power for 20 years. I am here to change Italy. If I don't succeed in doing so, I'm going to return home," he said.





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