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Italy Bickers Its Way Towards Electoral Reform

The electoral reform ball is now rolling in Italy – largely thanks to the efforts of new centre-left leader, Matteo Renzi, although the comic-activist led 5 Star Movement had also been pushing hard for Italy’s parliament to roll up its sleeves and tackle this sticky issue. While the 5 Star Movment was ignored, Renzi was not and things have started to move, albeit a little hesitantly.

UPDATE: Actually, since I wrote this, Italy’s news is reporting that the electoral reform debate is on the point of stalling. Not good.

Never ones to let any excuse for bickering escape them, Italy’s politicians are quarrelling away over the details of the electoral reform. Smaller parties think they may become a thing of the past, the 5 Star Movement is convinced the reforms are being designed to keep the movement out of parliament, and a group of left-wing jurists is convinced the Renzi electoral reform will lead to a law just as undemocratic and unconstitutional as the one it has to replace. Yes, Italy must pass an electoral reform law otherwise the nation cannot hold elections – or that is more or less what Italy’s highest court stated when it condemned the current Berlusconi-government concocted version.

Silvio Berlusconi, meanwhile, seems to be one of the few personalties in the star studded world of Italian politics who is not complaining about the Renzi electoral reform. Indeed, Berlusconi is convinced his reborn Forza Italia party will win Italy’s 2014 elections. The small matter that nobody has yet called elections is not worrying Mr Berlusconi! But, there’s a strong chance that elections will be called this year – as Berlusconi is clearly aware.

What’s All the Electoral Reform Bickering About?

One side of Renzi’s own PD party wants preference votes, and electoral lists which are not fixed. The worry is that election candidates will end up, as is common in Italy, being chosen by party bigwigs and not by the population. Italy’s blocked electoral lists generally lead to the personal favourites of party leaders ending up in Italy’s parliament. Competence and integrity tend to come a long way down the list of ‘must have qualities’ for elected representatives in the Boot – and this has more or less always been the case. In part, this situation explains why Italy tends to spin round going nowhere especially in grim economic times.

Others don’t want preference votes – probably because they want to nominate their best friends to positions of political power.

The preferences issue could be sorted out if all of Italy’s political parties agreed to hold some form primaries. Italy’s population could then have some say in who ends up standing for election. Even with primaries though, instead of choosing one personal favourite as a candidate, party leaders will end up proposing a selection of personal favourites and voters may still lose out.

Another issue which is causing micro-ructions is the ‘majority bonus’ the winning party would be awarded. Renzi fixed this at 35%, but some of his people want the limit to be much higher – 40% or more.

The biggest issue seems to whether or not the Renzi electoral reform, christened Italicum by Italy’s press, will be constitutional. If it is a mere rehash of the now semi-extinct Mattarellum or Pig-sty law, then, like the Pig Sty law, it may face the wrath of Italy’s constitutional court. In fact, the bunch of lawyers who managed to have the Pig-Sty law partially annulled are already considering challenging the Renzi electoral reform even if its details are not yet clear. Even if this does occur, Italy’s slow justice system will ensure the forthcoming reform should last 10 years or so before being voided – if it is found to be unconstitutional.

What Do Italians Think of the Renzi Reform?

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Reading comment on websites like Il Fatto Quotidiano, cynicism seems to be the order of the day. Some thing Renzi is no more than an attempt to keep Italy’s old guard political class afloat. Others think Renzi is the new Berlusconi and may even be in league with Berlusconi. There are fears that Italy’s democracy is under threat. The overriding impression is that few Italians trust Italy’s centre-left leaning PD party, but then the popularity of Italy’s politicians has never been too high even at the best of times.

An election system which promotes stability appears to worry Italians. Some fear that extreme parties could end up in power – the shadow of Mussolini still looms large over Italy.

Renzi will have to work hard to convince Italians that what he’s cooking up will be good for Italians at street level. So far though, Renzi is spending much of his time working on convincing Italy’s politicians that they must support the reforms he is proposing – otherwise Italy’s government will fall and elections will be held – though just on what basis is very hard to know. If Italy’s government does collapse, chaos will ensure – but Italy’s President Napolitano won’t let the government fall until legitimate elections can be called – which means the Renzi reform must go through.

When will Italy’s Electoral Reform Be Passed?

How long is an Italian piece of string?! Joking aside, subject to the bickering, grumbling and other heated debate the electoral law reform is generating, Renzi has set his sights on getting a new law up and running this spring, maybe a little sooner.

What will happen then is not too clear, even if Silvio Berlusconi has understood that general elections are likely to be called at some point in 2014.

Should elections be called, Matteo Renzi, unless he messes up royally or falls victim to mud slinging, stands a very good chance of becoming Italy’s next prime minister. He may even end up leading a government with enough of a majority to get things done  – and with what is being proposed now, a new goverment won’t be held to ransom by the gripes and grumbles of a small coalition partner parties.

If, and it is still a big ‘if’, Italy does end up with a government which could last a whole term, then major reforms could be passed and Italy should be able to start motoring once more – provided Renzi selects people who are up to the job of sorting out all of Italy’s problems. Yes, we are back to the length of an Italian piece of string.

Still, despite the stumbling, and the grumbling, Italy is moving and Matteo Renzi is the prime mover. He’s going to need excellent problem solving skills to bring the electoral law issue to a conclusion – hiccups are inevitable and one appears to be on the point of bring the whole thing to a grinding halt, as mentioned in the update at the start of this post.

Watch this space!

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