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Renzi confident election-law plan can clear hurdles

Law forged with Berlusconi ready for next national vote

30 January, 19:06
Renzi confident election-law plan can clear hurdles (By Sandra Cordon) (ANSA) - Rome, January 30 - Matteo Renzi, the leader of the center-left Democratic Party (PD), said Thursday that a bill for a new election law based on a deal he struck with ex-premier and centre-right leader Silvio Berlusconi is set to be swiftly approved in parliament.

The new measures will replace their dysfunctional predecessor, known as the "pigsty" law, which was ruled unconstitutional last month and contributed to two months of parliamentary deadlock and the formation a shaky grand-coalition government last year.

The law will still require some amendments, as it was based on an initial agreement forged between Renzi and Berlusconi that was updated at fresh negotiations on Wednesday after an agreement they reached earlier this month came under fire. Various aspects of the first agreement have changed, including its system for awarding bonus seats for the coalition that comes first and the thresholds for entry to parliament, which threatened the existence of some smaller parties.

But the revised plan is still being criticised by many, including a minority in the PD, for failing to give voters the chance to express preferences about which of the candidates on any given party list would represent them in parliament.

"I'm not worried about any obstacles," said Renzi, the energetic 39-year-old Florence mayor who has revved up the drive for much-needed institutional reforms after winning a party leadership primary last month.

"I'm relaxed and serene," he added on Italian television when asked if he was worried about the agreement being sunk by rebels within his own party.

The new system features much shorter lists of candidates and a bonus of 15% of seats for the coalition that comes first and wins over 37% of the electorate - up from 35% in the previous deal.

If no coalition wins over 37%, the top two would go to a runoff. The parliamentary-entry threshold for small parties in a coalition is set at 4.5%, down from 5% in the previous deal, while parties that run alone need to capture at least 8% of the vote.

The aim is to make it more difficult for small parties to veto decisions and exert an influence on policy that goes beyond their level of support among voters. Still, it would also allow regional parties like the Northern League to get in if they get 8% in seven regions.

However, the League continued to complain that the new law was not fair.

Matteo Salvini, federal secretary of the League, said it was "botched".

Renzi and Berlusconi have also reached a deal to save money by scrapping Italy's provincial governments, handing regional powers back to Rome, and to simplify the passage of legislation by stripping the Senate of its lawmaking powers and turning it into an assembly of regions. Renzi said he expected to have all that in place by mid-February.

"By February 15, we'll have a text ready with cross-party support to supersede the Senate and clarify the powers of the regional governments," Renzi said. He has also warned that the left-right government, led by his party colleague, Premier Enrico Letta, will collapse if the election-law plan does not come to fruition. There had been bitter criticism within the PD about Renzi's decision to strike a deal with Berlusconi, an act some said helped rehabilitate the three-time premier's image since his ejection from parliament last year.

That came after a supreme court found Berlusconi guilty of tax fraud in his first-ever binding conviction in 20 years of legal entanglements.

But it did not strip Berlusconi of his title as head of the biggest center-right party in Italy, a point Renzi stressed throughout negotiations.

Renzi also noted that under the new law, the PD would not ever again need to work in a coalition with Berlusconi on his FI party. "We wrote these rules together with Berlusconi so we will not govern again together," Renzi said in Thursday's television interview.

"There is no risk of unconstitutionality in the new electoral law".

From the start, the deal was seen as very likely to pass in parliament, given it had the backing of the two biggest parties in Italy - the PD, followed by Berlusconi's center-right Forza Italia (FI).

Policymakers have waffled for years on reforming the previous law universally seen as ineffective.

Last year, the Constitutional Court struck it down after February 2013 elections produced no clear winner, forcing the center left and the center right to join forces in an unnatural union that risked imploding on several occasions.

While his colleagues prepared to approve the new election law, Letta discussed economic issues at a forum of European industry ministers.

Letta said that boosting industrial production will be a important theme when Italy assumes the rotating presidency of the European Commission, just as reducing labour costs in Italy is crucial now. "Reducing labor costs is an essential key, and we want to proceed down this road," Letta told the conference held in Rome.

"Other measures will follow". Labor costs have been a sensitive theme in Italy this week after the government summoned Electrolux managers for emergency talks after the electrical-appliance multinational announced a shock wage-cut plan it said was necessary to keep its Italian plants running.

Letta told the forum that the government "will not accept raising a white flag," and said there would be "maximum commitment" from his cabinet, "because such production can and must stay in Italy". "We will do everything to convince the company," to not leave Italy, he said.

In the second half of this year, when Italy assumes the presidency of the EU, its industrial productivity will be a crucial issue to tackle, he said.

"We had a period in which we thought it was a bad thing to talk about industry in Europe," said Letta. "Eventually it was realized that this was a big mistake and now is important to talk about a European industrial future".