ROME Jan 16 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)