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Election reform clears house, but hurdles in store

Renzi heralds victory for signature bill as tensions surface

12 March, 15:42
Election reform clears house, but hurdles in store (By Christopher Livesay) (ANSA) - Rome, March 12 - After a weeks of setbacks and negotiations, Premier Matteo Renzi's signature election reform passed the Lower House on Wednesday, paving the way for a new policy that aims to avert the risk of deadlock in parliament, though hurdles remain, both for the law and its central author. After a House session that went into the wee hours Tuesday failed to bring the reform to a vote, the bill won final approval Wednesday morning with 365 votes in favour, 156 against and 40 abstentions. The new bill sets bars for small parties to force them into alliances, limiting their veto power, and provides a 15% winner's bonus for a coalition that gets 37% to ensure it has a working majority.

The bill, which now moves to the Senate, became necessary after the previous system was declared unconstitutional in December and was blamed for the disarray that followed last year's general election.

In February 2013, inconclusive elections produced a virtual three-way tie between the center left, Silvio Berlusconi's center right and the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement of Beppe Grillo.

The result paralyzed parliament for two months.

The deadlock was finally broken by an unnatural and unstable left-right alliance. The resulting grand coalition government of Enrico Letta fell after only 10 months.

Giving it the coup de gras was none other than Renzi, who harried his PD colleague Letta for months for alleged inaction and unwillingness to take bold measures if it risked destabilizing the coalition. Meanwhile Renzi took bold moves on his own. After coming into control of the PD in a landslide party primary in December, young Renzi ruffled feathers by directly negotiating with Berlusconi, who despite being ejected from the Senate last year for a binding tax-fraud conviction remained the head of the biggest center-right party in parliament. Together they hashed out the election reform. Many in the PD accused Renzi of de facto rehabilitating Berlusconi in the process and undermining Letta. But it also signaled a bipartisan pragmatism that could get things done in Italy's polarized political environment, political pundits say. Last month Renzi seized his opportunity and orchestrated a coup within the PD, wherein members voted by a wide margin to unseat Letta in favor of Renzi. In many ways his premiership has been seen as a mandate to pass election reform. But the enemies he made along the way appeared to be trying to derail his authority throughout the formation of the bill, Renzi said Wednesday, pointing to efforts to tack on amendments guaranteeing gender parity in parliament and other changes, which ultimately failed to pass but succeeding in slowing down Renzi's otherwise fast pace. "In these days, nothing had anything to do with women (quotas). It was an attempted political move to show I can't control the PD," Renzi told Italian daily La Repubblica. "Using secret ballots, some people were trying to get revenge and push me out, and they lost. The election law is going forward and it's just the beginning". Renzi has suggested his willingness to address the issue of gender parity once the bill is reviewed in the Senate. Other swipes at Renzi came down to the House vote itself: Ex-premier Letta was among 13 members of the center-left Democratic Party (PD) who were absent from the floor without receiving authorization as ballots were submitted. Joining Renzi in what was seen as a sign of protest was Pippo Civati, who represents a more left-leaning wing in the PD, and who ran against Renzi in last fall's PD primary. Civati was one of the few PD members who openly defied Renzi in his party coup toppling Letta. The move opened the 39-year-old former mayor of Florence to accusations of hypocrisy after repeatedly insisting he would never seek the highest office without a general vote. Despite the clear tensions in his majority party, Renzi proclaimed a victory for Italian politics with the House passage of his bill. "Thank you to the MPs. They showed we can really change Italy. Politics 1, defeatism 0," tweeted the premier.

The next hurdle facing Renzi appears to be resistance in the Senate, where his PD does not have a majority. In order to pass the bill he needs the support of Berlusconi and his FI. So far Renzi, a charismatic go-getter often likened to a young Berlusconi, has been able to count on the three-time premier and bill co-author, who earlier this month bowed to Renzi's request to apply the law strictly to the House and not the Senate, despite misgivings from members of FI. That decision was made in light of another planned reform that would demote the Senate to a council of regional and local representatives who would not have policymaking powers, thereby making application of the new election law moot. But the FI appears to have put its foot down on the topic of quotas for women in the House, which Renzi had promised to work for in order to appease those from his own party pushing for amendments in the House. On Wednesday, a Senate session was forced to adjourn after failing to reach quorum, mostly due to the absence of members of the New Center Right Party (NCD) in Renzi's government coalition and the FI in the opposition. On the docket was a vote on a draft law on amendments for women MP quotas in upcoming European elections in May.