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Parties tussle over electoral law

Voter preferences divide Premier Letta, centre-left leader

24 January, 18:49
Parties tussle over electoral law (By Christopher Livesay) (ANSA) - Rome, January 24 - Premier Enrico Letta has made some objections to a new election law proposed by the leader of his center-left Democratic Party Matteo Renzi, raising another hurdle for the ambitious mayor of Florence. Renzi, the 39-year-old who won a primary to be leader of Italy's biggest party in a landslide last month, struck a deal for a new election law with centre-right leader and three-time premier Silvio Berlusconi last weekend. The deal was approved by the PD at a party meeting on Monday despite objections from an internal minority that it said was tainted and represented a sort of political rehabilitation for Forza Italia leader Berlusconi, who was ejected from parliament last year after a binding tax-fraud conviction. Many in the party are still calling for a plan to be changed to allow voters to express a preference as to which candidate on any given party list represents them in parliament.

Italy needs a new election law after the Constitutional Court ruled the old one invalid last month and part of the reason it did so was that its system of long 'blocked lists' of candidates gave voters little power in selecting representatives. Renzi's plan seeks to get around the detachment this creates between elector and elected with smaller constituencies and lists of a maximum of six candidates so voters can have a better idea of who the potential MPs are in their area. But Letta has suggested he agrees with the PD minority that this is not good enough. "I believe that the public should get more say in the choice of the candidates," he said. Renzi, who said he tried to get Berlusconi to accept voter preferences but was told this was a deal-breaker, initially said his election-law programme was unamendable. He has since softened that stance, saying changes could be made if everyone is in agreement.

But he also warned that if the election reform does not come to fruition, it will spell the end for Letta's fragile left-right coalition government and fresh elections. Deputy Premier and Interior Minister Angelino Alfano's New Centre Right (NCD) party, one of the junior partners in Letta's coalition, is backing the reform plan but it too is calling for voter preferences. However, a bigwig from Forza Italia, which abandoned the government and joined the opposition shortly before Berlusconi was ejected from parliament, reportedly dismissed a call for it to rethink its veto on voter preferences at a meeting with a PD MP close to Renzi on Friday.

Renzi's drive to introduce a new election law has caused problems for the government and fuelled speculation he wants to scupper Letta's executive and provoke a fresh vote, in the hope of winning and taking his party colleague's place at the helm of government. The PD chief has denied this, saying he wants to support the government throughout 2014 so it can pass key reforms, including moves to make Italy easier to govern by stripping the Upper House of its lawmaking powers.

Some pundits have said his uncompromising approach is justified given Italy's recent history.

The political parties failed for years to find an agreement on a new system, even though the old one, which was nicknamed the 'pigsty' and was blamed for contributing to the inconclusive outcome to last year's general election, was widely recognised to be dysfunctional.

Late last year the Constitutional Court went a step further, ruling it was invalid. Italy's political class has also little to show in terms of structural reforms widely seen as needed to revive the Italian economy after a decade in which recession has alternated with sluggish growth.

Renzi's plan also risks coming under attack in parliament from small parties whose existence is threatened by the thresholds it seeks to introduce for a group to have seats - 8% for parties not in a coalition and 5% for those that are.

But in the meantime Renzi can count on support from the battered but still formidable Berlusconi, who on Friday said he "had finally found someone reasonable in the PD". "We've launched the first important reform of our constitutional framework," said the three-time premier, "because as things stand, Italy is not governable".