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Electoral Reform for Italy Has Stalled

Heading in a better direction?

After a period of feverish activity, the Renzi led government’s attempts to sort out new election law reforms for Italy appear to have stalled. Berlusconi man Renato Brunetta demanded that the reforms be passed before Easter. Easter has now passed and no electoral law reform is to be seen.

Italy desperately needs changes to its electoral system. Firstly, the current law has been declared unconstitutional and secondly, as it stood, it tended to produce governments which simply do not have enough of a majority to govern. Indeed, Italy appears to be doing all it can to avoid holding general elections. Matteo Renzi is the third unelected prime minister Italy has had since Berlusconi was toppled in late 2011.

At the start of 2014, the need for new electoral reform was sold as being an extremely urgent necessity. The whole future of Italy was at risk unless something was done as quickly as possible, proponents of the reform barked.

A flurry of electoral law reform activity took place soon after Matteo Renzi became prime minister. Indeed, shortly after his appointment, he went to see Silvio Berlusconi to thrash out details of a reform programme which included changes to Italy’s electoral system. Getting Berlusconi’s support was the only way Mr Renzi could hope to push the reform through Italy’s parliament.

The Pact with the Devil

Whatever agreement was reached with Berlusconi was seen by some on Italy’s left as being little short of a pact with the devil. Yet another pact. Italy’s centre left party entered into an alliance with Berlusconi’s centre right after inconclusive elections, based on the now unconstitutional electoral law, were held over a year ago. The fact that Mr Renzi was negotiating reforms with convicted tax evader Silvio Berlusconi did not go unnoticed either.

5 Star Consternation

Beppe Grillo’s 5 Star Movement has long contended that the Partito Democratico now headed by Mr Renzi and Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party are one and the same. That the pre-Renzi Partito Democratico entered into an alliance with Berlusconi served to confirm this. Then Mr Renzi reached an agreement with Berlusconi this year. In the eyes of the 5 Star Movement, this was even further confirmation of what it has been arguing all along: that Mr Renzi’s and Berlusconi’s parties are one.

5 Star Movement people would argue that the relationship between Italy’s centre left and centre right began soon after the bribesville-clean hands scandals of the early 1990s. There is some evidence to support this contention in that both Mr Renzi’s and Berlusconi’s parties contain many remnants from pre-bribesville-clean hands scandal politics. Mr Renzi, though, is too young to have been mixed up in the scandals, though he’s seen by the 5 Star people as being no more than a new incarnation of the old guard. The misgivings of the 5 Star Movement did not prevent Mr Renzi from forging ahead with his ideas for electoral reform.

Electoral Law Things Moved and Then Stopped

For a while, what looked to be solid progress was made and then everything came to an abrupt halt not long after March 12th. Since then, everything has gone silent. The proposals for the so-called Italicum electoral law reforms still have to be heard by Italy’s senate, though according to the parliamentary monitoring website OpenPolis, no date for a senate debate of the reform has been scheduled. Why?

One answer could be the proximity of the European elections. Mr Renzi has just dished out a potentially vote winning tax cut to those on low incomes, and he probably wants to avoid the controversy electoral law reform debate would inevitably stir up. Keeping the election law reform out of the limelight will give the 5 Star Movement a little less ammunition with which to attack Mr Renzi party.

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However, the 5 Star Movement, led by the vociferous Beppe Grillo is still attacking the electoral law reforms Mr Renzi is proposing. On Beppe Grillo’s blog is an interview with Felice Besostri, one of three lawyers who contested and brought down the previous electoral law. In the interview, Besostri argues that the reform being proposed by the Renzi government is most likely as unconstitutional as the one which preceded it. The 5 Star Movement also suspects that the new law is being engineered to keep it out of parliament. This will not be too easy seeing as the movement is already in parliament and is keeping a very close eye on what is being proposed.

Perhaps Mr Renzi is also taking a very close look at the details so he can avoid saddling Italy with an electoral law which potentially damages democracy. Should, however, Mr Renzi attempt to render the reform more democratic, he will risk losing the support of Silvio Berlusconi and, potentially, all of Italy’s right leaning parties. This could bring his government down.

Another Reason for the Stall

This leads to another reason for halting progress on Italy’s electoral reform front. There are signs that Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party is disintegrating and more of its members may well move over to other right wing parties who are not beholden to Silvio Berlusconi. If enough of Berlusconi’s people defect, Mr Renzi will not have to worry about the pact he made to push the reform through. Provided, of course, the centre right is happy with the reforms.

More Unknowns

Other unknowns exist. While Mr Renzi enjoys, for now, the support of Italy’s centre right, after the European elections, should Berlusconi’s party do well, Mr Renzi will be forced to remain friends with its leader and Italy may end up with a new electoral law which is as bad, if not worse, than the one it is supposed to replace.

Whatever happens European elections-wise, Italy probably has time to hammer out electoral reform details seeing as general elections probably won’t be held until 2018.

It is this Italy watcher’s guess that discussion of electoral law reform for Italy will fire up again after the European elections – provided that Mr Renzi’s party performs well. If it does not, who knows when Italy will end up with those electoral law reforms which were so desperately needed at the start of 2014.




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