ROME Italian center-left leader Matteo Renzi warned rival parties on Tuesday not to hold up electoral reform after they tabled scores of amendments that risked delaying legislation that could pave the way for wider economic measures.
The proposed changes to the electoral system are designed to avoid a repeat of the stalemate produced by last year's poll and were agreed in advance with center-right leader Silvio Berlusconi. They should produce a clear winner at the next ballot by rewarding big parties and strong coalitions.
The bill was due to come before the lower house of parliament on Wednesday but it has been held up by more than 200 amendments and by wrangling over key elements, such as the threshold for parties to enter parliament and the question of whether candidates should be directly elected.
Renzi, who warned this week that if the proposals are not agreed there would be no point in the current left-right coalition continuing, said change was needed immediately to open the way for broader reforms to Italy's stagnant economy.
"If politicians can't even agree on the rules of the game, they won't have credibility on anything at all," he said on his Facebook page. "If anyone wants to bring it all down they should do so openly and explain it to the country."
Wary of the power of Italy's wily political class to smother ambitious reform plans in interminable backroom haggling, Renzi is determined to move quickly and wants to get the new electoral rules through parliament by April.
He is aiming to have a separate constitutional law to demote the Senate to the status of a regional assembly and concentrate power in the lower house approved next year.
With amendments still due to be discussed in committee on Wednesday, Renzi's Democratic Party (PD) said it would accept a delay of one day at most to its planned timetable.
"We've said we're willing to go to the chamber on January 30 but not beyond that," PD lower house floor leader Roberto Speranza told reporters in parliament.
Although Renzi, the 39 year-old mayor of Florence, is not in government himself, his arrival as head of the PD, the largest force in Prime Minister Enrico Letta's fragile coalition, has brought new urgency to a stalled reform process.
But he faces opposition from rival parties and skepticism from many in his own camp who were shocked by the deal with Berlusconi, now banned from parliament after a tax fraud conviction.
Smaller parties, which risk being squeezed out under the electoral reform, are demanding a lower threshold for entering parliament and are also unhappy that the law would not allow direct election of candidates, instead forcing voters to choose from so-called "blocked lists" chosen by the parties.
Berlusconi's Forza Italia party is also resisting moves to try to change the threshold for a party or coalition to claim outright victory without the need for a second-round runoff vote, which the center-left wants to raise to 38 percent from 35 percent at present.
According to Italian media reports, Berlusconi fears that Renzi, who has made no secret of his ambition to be prime minister in future, would have an advantage if voting went to a second round, with voters from Beppe Grillo's anti-establishment 5 Star Movement switching to support him.
With bargaining in full swing, all sides agree that if the package were to fail and the deal between Renzi and Berlusconi fall apart, Letta's coalition would risk collapsing almost immediately, taking Italy to new elections within months.
But with central elements of the last electoral law declared unconstitutional by Italy's top court last year, any election now would be held under a proportional system virtually guaranteed to produce even greater deadlock, a potent spur to all sides to reach agreement.
(Reporting By James Mackenzie; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)