ROME Italy's main political parties agreed adjustments to center-left leader Matteo Renzi's electoral reform proposals that should clear the way for the closely watched package to come before parliament on Thursday.
The measures, designed to prevent the kind of messy stalemate left by last year's deadlocked elections, are seen as vital to allowing the creation of stable governments capable of tackling deep reforms to Italy's stagnant economy.
They would favor strong coalitions or parties, setting higher minimum thresholds for entry into parliament and guaranteeing a solid majority to the winner with a run-off round if needed to decide the result.
Renzi, who is not in government but who has assumed an ever greater role as head of the largest party in Prime Minister Enrico Letta's ruling coalition, says election reform would be the prelude to broader economic reforms.
The changes agreed by Renzi's Democratic Party (PD) and Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia would make it slightly easier for smaller parties to enter parliament by lowering the minimum entry threshold from 5 percent to 4.5 percent.
At the same time, they would make it more likely that an election would require a run-off vote by raising the minimum threshold a party or coalition would need to claim outright victory in the first round from 35 percent to 37 percent. The winning group or party would then receive a winner's bonus guaranteeing a majority of over 50 percent.
Dario Nardella, a PD deputy close to Renzi, told reporters that a definitive accord had been signed between the PD, Forza Italia and the small New Center Right (NCD) group led by Interior Minister Angelino Alfano. "I hope other groups will sign up to it as well," he said.
The package will now go to the lower house on Thursday afternoon but would not be passed before April.
GRUMBLINGS ON LEFT
The package was originally agreed between Renzi and center-right leader Berlusconi over the objections of many on the left, who resisted any deal with the 77 year-old media billionaire banned from parliament over a tax fraud conviction.
A separate law intended to end the risk of deadlock between the two houses of parliament would reduce the Senate, which currently has virtually equal powers to the lower house, to a toothless regional assembly.
However that will require a deeper constitutional change and is not expected to be passed for at least another year.
The package has been the subject of intense wrangling in parliament's constitutional affairs committee but Renzi has fought to head off the welter of amendments which frequently bury reform efforts before they even get off the ground.
He has faced sniping from many on the left in the PD, suspicious of his disregard for party traditions, as well as opposition from the small parties in Letta's coalition which face the risk of elimination under the proposed rules.
There is still disagreement over the so-called "blocked lists" of candidates picked by the parties which Berlusconi has insisted on as the price of any deal. Under this system voters would not be able to vote for individual representatives and would have to pick all the candidates on a list.
Renzi has said repeatedly that if the law is rejected in parliament, there would be no point in the government continuing and it would be preferable to go to new elections.
However central elements of the last electoral law were declared unconstitutional by Italy's top court last year and any election now would be held under a proportional system likely to produce even greater deadlock.
(Writing By James Mackenzie; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)