Italian court okays referendum on election law

ROME Wed Jan 16, 2008 12:34pm EST

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ROME Jan 16 (Reuters) - Italy's constitutional court gave the go-ahead on Wednesday to a referendum on reforms to the electoral system intended to end the instability that has plagued Italian politics for decades.

After seeing 61 governments since World War Two and watching centre-left Prime Minister Romano Prodi's nine-party coalition wobble dangerously for 1-1/2 years, there is consensus in parliament and among the public that the current system of proportional representation needs an overhaul.

More than 600,000 people signed a petition for a referendum which, if successful, would require parliament to pass new rules to end the current plethora of small parties in bickering coalitions and move Italy closer to a two-party system.

But while there is broad agreement on the need for change, a referendum would hijack talks on reform between Italy's two biggest parties -- Prodi's Democratic Party (PD) and conservative Silvio Berlusconi's People of Freedom.

The PD and Berlusconi, usually bitter enemies, want to keep control of designing future election laws by passing a law in parliament first, which would preclude any referendum.

A parliamentary committee is now trying to rush through a draft reform bill for rapid debate and approval.

"It's better to hold a referendum letting voters give their view democratically on the electoral system they want than to pass rushed, botched laws responding to the interests of a few people," said deputy Silvana Mura of the small centrist Italy of Values party, which is part of Prodi's coalition.

Italy has tinkered with the electoral system before. In 1993 it replaced the post-war proportional representation system with a mixed one electing 75 percent of each house by a simple majority and the rest proportionally.

Conservative former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, fearing defeat in 2006 elections, imposed "bonus" seats for the winning coalition allocated on a different basis in the lower house and Senate. It backfired on Berlusconi but hindered the victorious Prodi by making him strong in the lower house but weak in the Senate.

Even the right-wing senator who devised the current system termed it a "porcata" (rubbish) -- and most politicians agree.

Large parties favour moving closer to a two-party system -- PR with "corrective devices" as in Spain or a higher cut-off for winning seats, as in Germany. Smaller parties who can now hold decisive votes fear they could vanish from parliament.

A spokesman for the constitutional court said it had given the go-ahead for the referendum, which will ask citizens to back or oppose proposals like scrapping the "bonus" and banning candidates from standing in more than one list.

To avoid a referendum being set for a date between mid-April and mid-June, parliament will have to rush through an election law reform by the end of March -- which could be difficult, given the tenuous grip on power of the ruling centre left. (Additional reporting by Paolo Biondi and Roberto Landucci; Editing by Caroline Drees)

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