March 6, 2010 / 4:31 PM / 9 years ago

Italy opposition protests at ballot decree

ROME (Reuters) - Italy’s opposition took to the streets on Saturday to protest against a decree by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s government aimed at restoring its candidates to the ballot sheet in two regional elections.

Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi gestures as he speaks at a news conference to encourage his supporters to become "Promoters of Liberty" ahead of regional elections, in Rome February 24, 2010. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi

Leaders of Italy’s center-left opposition said the decree approved at an emergency cabinet meeting late on Friday was undemocratic because it tampered with electoral law ahead of March 28-29 regional polls.

Hours after it was approved, a Milan court reinstated Lombardy Governor Roberto Formigoni, a close ally of Berlusconi, to the electoral list on Saturday, dismissing alleged irregularities with his candidacy.

It was not clear, however, if the decree swayed the magistrates’ decision.

The government, which saw several of its politicians stripped from the ballot in Lombardy and Lazio because of problems in presenting their candidacies, said the decree did not alter electoral law but gave judges clear guidelines on how to handle their appeals.

“When faced with a coup d’etat, we need to react in the only way possible: with a democratic popular insurrection,” Antonio di Pietro, a former anti-graft prosecutor turned Berlusconi’s most outspoken opponent, said at a protest in Bologna.

A court in Rome was due to rule on Monday on another request by Berlusconi’s People of Freedom (PDL) party to have its slate of candidates restored to the electoral ballot in Lazio after the party missed a February 27 deadline for registration.

Despite a string of scandals over the last year, Berlusconi’s coalition is expected to perform strongly in the elections, as polls suggest the divided opposition has disapproval ratings of over 70 percent.

The main center-left Democratic Party held demonstrations in Rome and Milan, and called a national protest in the capital for next weekend over the decree.

Members of a civil society group Popolo Viola held a “wake” for democracy outside President Giorgio Napolitano’s office late on Friday in a bid to stop him from signing the legislation.

On Saturday, after leftist Napolitano authorized the decree, scores of its members convened a fresh protest near parliament with banners reading: “President, We Don’t Understand.” They asked citizens to write to Napolitano demanding an explanation.

PRESIDENT DEFENDS DECISION

Defending his decision, Napolitano said he had faced the dilemma of how to guarantee elections would take place with the participation of all political parties.

“It was not sustainable that in Italy’s biggest region the governor and the ruling party’s slate should be excluded due to errors in presenting their list,” Napolitano wrote on the presidency Web site, responding to a deluge of messages.

Di Pietro said there could be grounds for seeking the president’s impeachment for violating his constitutional role, but other opposition leaders distanced themselves from this.

“Let’s leave the president out of this,” said Pier Luigi Bersani, head of the main opposition Democratic Party. “It’s not his job to evaluate decrees. It is the government which is responsible.”

Government ministers accused the opposition of trying to take advantage of a bureaucratic mix-up to steal the election. “Democracy must win: bureaucracy cannot triumph,” said Renato Brunetta, public administration minister.

Corriere della Sera daily on Friday quoted Berlusconi as saying the pre-election procedural “mess-ups” had cost his coalition 3 percentage points in terms of voter support.

Additional reporting by Ilaria Polleschi and Antonella Ciancio in Milan; Editing by Charles Dick

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