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Letta govt approves decree to end party funding

Letta says power with people, denies taxpayers 'cheated'

13 December, 14:56
Letta govt approves decree to end party funding (ANSA) - Rome, December 13 - Premier Enrico Letta said the Italian people have more power after his coalition government approved a decree to phase out public funding of Italy's political parties at a cabinet meeting Friday.

Letta, a member of the centre-left Democratic Party (PD), said the decree was based on a government bill that was approved in the Lower House but was not set to finish its passage through parliament by the end-of-year deadline his executive set when it was sworn in in April.

A decree immediately becomes law after being approved by the government but it needs to be ratified by parliament within two months to stay in force.

It is a response to a long series of high-profile corruption scandals that hit various parts of the country's political spectrum and contributed to widespread disenchantment with its political class.

The rise of the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement (M5S), which won about a quarter of the vote in February's inconclusive general election, has been linked to these scandals.

This week Italy has also been hit by violence and disruption after disparate groups joined in nationwide protests by the so-called Pitchfork Movement. Under the terms of the bill that was presented to parliament, party funding will be reduced to 60% in the first year, 50% in the second and 40% the third year before it is subsequently abolished altogether. Public funding will be replaced by private donations, with limits set on how much an individual or firm can give to any party to avoid excessive power going to lobbies.

Individuals will also be able to donate a small fraction on their taxes to a party in their annual returns declaration. "We always felt that going beyond the current regulation of public contributions was absolutely necessary," Letta told a press conference.

"This is very important to the credibility for the political world and the institutions". The Internet-based M5S, which has rejected 42 million euros in public financing and campaigned for party funding to be scrapped immediately, has called the government's move a "moral victory".

But it also dubbed the original bill a "scam law", as it stipulated that the individual taxpayer's money would be split among parties automatically unless the person explicitly declares on their tax return that it should not go to a political party.

Letta said this is not the case in the decree and the money will stay in the State coffers when individual taxpayers opt not to donate their share to a party.

"We are giving all the power to the citizens," Letta said.

"A citizen who wants to make a contribution can do so via their tax return or via a voluntary contribution.

"The system does not cheat the public as the (tax) money not assigned to a party remains with the State". However, M5S leader Beppe Grillo was not impressed.

"It you want to get rid of public financing, all you have to do is not accept it, as the M5S did by not accepting 42 million euros," comedian-turned political Grillo said on his popular blog, which gave life to the movement in 2009. "The decree is the umpteenth time we've been taken for a ride".

Last year a series of public-funds scandals hit regional and local governments across the country, involving parties of both left and right.

They culminated in the October arrest of Franco Fiorito, the caucus leader for Silvio Berlusconi's now defunct People of Freedom (PDL) party in the Lazio region, for allegedly skimming off millions of euros of public money for personal use.

Letta said the decree will stop the scandals as the parties will be forced to have external auditors check their accounts.

The measure is part of a series of reforms the government plans to cut the cost of Italy's political machinery and make the country easier to govern. These reforms should include cuts to the number of parliamentarians, the elimination of Italy's provincial governments, a new election law and stripping the Senate of law-making powers and turning it into a regional assembly.

Letta said his government is in a stronger position to push through reforms after winning two confidences votes in parliament this week.

The votes were called after ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right Forza Italia party pulled its support, leaving Letta with a more slender majority in parliament.

It survived as expected thanks to the support of the New Centre Right (NCD) party, a group of pro-government moderates led by Deputy Premier and Interior Minister Angelino Alfano, who split from Berlusconi loyalists last month.

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