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26th Feb 2024

Renzi victorious after electoral overhaul

  • Rome: Renzi is a clever political operator (Photo: Giampaolo Macorig)

Italy is due to shed the tradition of having the most short-lived governments in the European Union after this week's approval of a new electoral law, championed by prime minister Matteo Renzi but strongly criticised by opposition parties and by dissidents in the ruling Democratic Party (PD).

In 69 years of republican history, Italy has been ruled by 63 governments and 27 different prime ministers. There is wide consensus that the frequent change of governments has slowed down the progress of reforms, disrupted long-term planning, and weakened Rome's hand at the EU negotiating table.

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The so-called Italicum act, adopted by parliament on Monday (4 May) and signed into law by president Sergio Mattarella two days later, is designed to give future governments a more solid footing.

The act means that whichever list wins 40 percent of the votes gets 55 percent of seats in the lower assembly, the Chamber of Deputies. If no list reaches the 40 percent threshold, the majority premium is assigned in a second round ballot between the top two performers from the first round.

Renzi sees the reform as part of a package designed to streamline Italy's governance, which includes yet-to-be approved bills reducing the veto powers of local authorities - which are seen as a deterrent to foreign investment - and turning the upper chamber, the Senate, into a non-elected assembly with limited say on legislation.

"The Italicum may not be perfect, as no electoral law is perfect. But it is a serious and rigorous law that allows Italy to have stability and [parliamentary] representation ... and forces parties to be straight with voters. Only one will be able to claim victory: not like now, where after the first results, everybody rushes before the cameras to celebrate their triumph," the PM said on 29 April.

Critics retort that the bill unduly strengthens the executive at the expense of parliament, undermining constitutional checks and balances, and gives voters too little say, since at least half of future members of the Chamber of Deputies will be elected through closed lists selected by party leaders, and only a minority is to win a seat through preference votes.

Renzi's opponents - including the conservative Forza Italia of former leader Silvio Berlusconi, the far-right Northern League, and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement of comedian Beppe Grillo - fear he may exploit the new voting rules, coming into effect in July 2016, to consolidate his grip on power.

Favourable opinion polls suggest that Italy's prime minister would likely win the next elections, but he first needs to complete the Senate reform to avoid having an elected upper chamber governed by pre-Italicum rules that would make it all but impossible for any single party to win a clear majority.

To speed through the change in the election law, the PD leader took several gambles.

He first negotiated the key planks of the Italicum with Berlusconi, in the name of bipartisanship, ignoring the protests of PD backbenchers who abhorred co-operation with the scandal-tainted oligarch.

After Berlusconi walked out of the arrangement - apparently, in retaliation for Renzi engineering Mattarella's parliamentary election to the presidency in January, without Forza Italia's involvement - the PD leader stuck to his guns, and batted away enduring criticism of the law from the minority wing of his own party.

The Italicum was sped through the Chamber of Deputies by the government resorting to three votes of confidence to quash amendments.

Opposition lawmakers walked out of votes after staging dramatic protests: some threw chrysanthemums - a flower symbolizing death, to mourn "the funeral of democracy," - while others denounced the change as “fascist".

The parliamentary showdown also deepened the rift between Renzi and PD dissenters, which have long nursed resentment against what they see as their leader's arrogance and disregard for leftist orthodoxy.

One of their leading members - Pippo Civati - quit the party on Wednesday with the promise to mount a left-wing insurgency against the government.

The Italicum still represents a political victory for Renzi, however.

Following up on the Jobs Act - EU-sponsored labour reforms that were also unpalatable to PD rebels - it helped him cement his reputation as a leader unafraid to force his hand to deliver change, just as 31 May local elections are approaching.

But it comes at the cost of stoking resentment against his strong-arm methods both inside and outside his party, complicating the passage of future bills in the Senate, where the government has a shaky majority.

The safest bet is that Renzi will once again skate over such difficulties - but the ice is getting thinner.

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