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Election-law row threatens to sink Letta govt

But PD leader Renzi 'optimistic' reform will go through

27 January, 20:11
Election-law row threatens to sink Letta govt (By Paul Virgo) (ANSA) - Rome, January 27 - Premier Enrico Letta's grand coalition government will fall if a new electoral law is not passed, Democratic Party (PD) leader Matteo Renzi warned Monday.

But Renzi, who forged a controversial deal with centre-right leader Silvio Berlusconi that paves the way for the key reform, said he was optimistic that would not happen.

"If the law is sunk it's difficult to think of hope for this legislative term, but I am optimistic," said the dynamic Florence mayor, who has shaken up his party and raised pressure on the government led by his PD colleague Letta to enact much-needed reforms. On January 18 Renzi and Berlusconi agreed on a plan to produce a clear winner by abolishing the powers of the Senate and raising the bar for small parties to get into parliament, to hopefully usher in a two-bloc system. But parties have been quibbling because of the relatively high bar - 5% for a party in a coalition, 8% for a party not in an alliance - and because the plan does not completely scrap lists of candidates picked by party bosses so as to give voters back the power to select their preferred candidate.

The reform bill, which is due to hit the House floor Wednesday, aims to replace a law recently deemed unconstitutional and was blamed for last year's inconclusive general election result that led to former PD deputy chief Letta's taking the helm of an unprecedented right-left coalition.

The proposal has come under fire from a minority in Renzi's party, in part because some see it was a political rehabilitation for ex-premier Berlusconi, who was ejected from parliament last year after a definitive tax-fraud conviction.

"I prefer to pass reforms with Berlusconi than govern with him," hit back Renzi on Monday, referring to the support the ex-premier's party gave the government last year until shortly before he was stripped of his Senate seat.

Many in the PD 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.

Part of the reason the Constitutional Court rejected the old law was because 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.

Letta is among those to say he thinks voters should have more say is determining the choice of MPs.

But he also stressed Monday that he would be "happier than anyone" about consensus being reached on a new election law and other reforms.

Renzi initially said his election-law programme was unamendable, but has since softened that stance, saying changes could be made if everyone is in agreement.

Berlusconi's Forza Italia (FI), however, reiterated Monday that the deal must stay as it is, meaning they remain opposed to voter preferences.

Renzi held fresh talks with FI bigwig Denis Verdini on Monday to discuss about possible amendments and was set to meet Deputy Premier and Interior Minister Angelino Alfano later in the day.

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.

Over 300 amendments have been presented to Renzi's proposal and the Florence mayor admitted that some in his party may vote against it in parliament.

But he said he was confident it would not be undone by an internal rebellion like the one that sank two of the PD's candidates to be head of State last year before Italian President Giorgio Napolitano reluctantly agreed to be re-elected.

Letta, meanwhile, accepted the resignation of Agriculture Minister Nunzia De Girolamo on Monday and named himself interim.

De Girolamo, of the NCD, accused the government of not defending her amid allegations that she improperly interfered in appointments in a southern region. De Girolamo's resignation has fueled speculation of an upcoming government reshuffle, one that may put Renzi supporters in the cabinet in order to reflect his overwhelming win at a PD primary last month.