Election pushes Italy towards two-party system

ROME Tue Apr 15, 2008 7:51am EDT

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ROME (Reuters) - Italy's next parliament will have far fewer parties than the previous assembly, pushing the country closer to the two-party system that many commentators say is the only way to end years of political instability.

Italy's last parliament had more than 20 parties. The new assembly taking shape after this week's election will count no more than six.

Besides handing a comfortable victory to media magnate Silvio Berlusconi, Italians sent a clear message by rewarding big political forces at the expense of the smaller parties that so often have held coalition governments to ransom.

"This is an electoral tsunami that redraws Italy's political landscape," wrote left-leaning La Repubblica daily on Tuesday.

Despite electoral rules which in past elections had favored smaller groups, seven out of 10 voters this time chose either Berlusconi's People of Freedom or the centre left's Democratic Party.

"This simplification brings us closer to other European countries we often envied and could result in quicker decision-making," said La Stampa daily in an editorial.

According to preliminary results for the lower house, Berlusconi's People of Freedom, which merged his Forza Italia movement with the post-fascist National Alliance, won 37 percent of the vote -- making it Italy's biggest single political group.

At the other end of the political spectrum, the Democratic party -- which was founded only last October by bringing together the centre left's two biggest forces and chose to ditch its far-left allies in the election -- won 33 percent.

The biggest casualty at the ballot box was the hard left, which for the first time in recent memory failed to win a single seat in parliament.

"MODERN COUNTRY"

"Now we'll govern like major Western democracies, with one major party in power and one major party in opposition," Berlusconi said on Tuesday.

"With the extremists gone ... we'll operate extremely quickly in parliament and get to work modernizing this country."

The election was called three years early after the defection of a tiny party proved enough to sink Romano Prodi's centre-left coalition government, Italy's 61st since 1945.

A slim majority in the Senate meant Prodi's nine-party government was dogged by constant infighting between his Catholic-to-communist allies. Bills were often approved by the cabinet only to languish in parliament for months, and many were never turned into law.

Berlusconi's winning coalition, by contrast, is made of just three political groups -- his People of Freedom party, the Northern League and a small autonomy movement for Sicily.

Even so, some political analysts said the League's strong showing could undermine the unity of the centre-right government that will be formed.

The xenophobic, separatist party which brought down Berlusconi's first cabinet in 1994 is now the third largest force in both houses of parliament with about 8 percent of the vote.

"There are different identities within Berlusconi's bloc. The League has come out very strong and it remains to be seen what kind of demands it will make," said Franco Pavoncello, politics professor at John Cabot university in Rome.

(Editing by Timothy Heritage)

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