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Italy PM Renzi makes progress with constitutional reform

ROME (Reuters) - Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi on Monday moved one step closer to passing a constitutional reform aimed at streamlining the lawmaking process when the lower house of parliament approved the bill in its fourth reading.

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi gestures during the end-of-year news conference in Rome, Italy, December 29, 2015. REUTERS/Remo Casilli

Renzi has staked his political future on the reform to cut the size and powers of the upper house Senate. The Chamber of Deputies approved it by 367 votes to 194.

Under the lengthy procedures required for constitutional changes, both houses now must pass the reform again. It will then face what promises to be a fiercely contested national referendum which Renzi hopes to hold in October.

Since taking office two years ago Renzi has piled political capital into the bill to effectively abolish the Senate as an elected chamber. He says this will make Italy more governable but his critics say it reduces democratic checks and balances.

It will cut the number of senators by two thirds, strip the Senate of its ability to bring down a government and sharply limit its scope to block legislation. It will also return to Rome some powers now held by the regional governments.

Renzi has said he will quit if, in what he calls “the mother of all battles,” the reform is rejected in the referendum.

“I am convinced that the Italians are on our side, but they will have the final word and I am ready to accept the consequences,” the 41-year-old former mayor of Florence said in a television interview on Sunday.

The constitutional reform has been a defining feature of Renzi’s government ever since it was presented shortly after he took office in February 2014.

It has caused divisions in his own Democratic Party and has been at the centre of wavering relations with the centre-right opposition of ex-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Berlusconi first backed the changes but now calls them undemocratic.

All the opposition parties are pledging to campaign against the reform at the referendum. Many commentators believe that if Renzi wins he will use the positive momentum to go to the polls in 2017, one year before his term of office expires.

One reason why the stakes are so high is that the Senate is inextricably tied to Renzi’s other main political reform: the introduction of a new, two-round voting system.

The electoral reform has already been passed by parliament but it envisages direct elections only for the Chamber of Deputies and so cannot work unless the Senate is scrapped in its current form. The reformed Senate would be made up of regional councillors and mayors.

Reporting by Gavin Jones; Editing by Crispian Balmer