Italian government signals ready to revise election law ahead of referendum

September 21, 2016 3:00 PM EDT

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi addresses the United Nations General Assembly in the Manhattan borough of New York, U.S. September 20, 2016. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz


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By Crispian Balmer

ROME (Reuters) - Italy's government said on Wednesday it was ready to change an electoral law that was only ratified last year, hoping its offer would win over some opponents to a referendum on constitutional reform.

The electoral overhaul was championed by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and is part of his drive to give Italy stronger government, guaranteeing a big majority to the winning party and giving party bosses wide authority to handpick candidates.

Although the law, known as the Italicum, is not a part of the constitutional reform, opponents are using it as a reason to vote 'No' in the forthcoming referendum, saying it will concentrate too much power in the hands of the prime minister.

Renzi has promised to stand down if he loses the referendum, which is due in November or December. He has also promoted the Italicum as a fundamental part of his reform program, which, he says, will end Italy's history of revolving-door government.

The constitutional reform proposes drastically diminishing the powers of the upper house Senate, leaving most decision-making in the hands of the lower house.

Members of Renzi's own center-left Democratic Party (PD) have said they fear the twin reforms will open the way for the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement to take power at the next election, which is due in 2018. PD dissidents also suspect Renzi will use the new law to stop them standing for re-election.

The 5-Star itself is demanding a return to proportional representation, which would keep alive Italy's tradition of coalition government, with no one party ever in a position to impose itself on the country.

WALKOUT

Rather than renounce the neutering of the Senate, Renzi said this week he was happy to review the Italicum and his ruling coalition presented a blandly worded motion to parliament on Wednesday saying it was ready to discuss modifications.

The motion passed by 293 to 157, but many lawmakers walked out before the vote was held, including some 40 members of the PD, who accused Renzi of employing underhand political tactics, hinting at possible change without committing to anything.

"It doesn't take much to realize that this means nothing," said the former head of the PD, Pier Luigi Bersani -- one of a number of veteran party figures lined up against Renzi.

All major opposition parties have also come out against the referendum and are urging a 'No' vote, in part driven by Renzi's pledge to stand down if he loses.

The prime minister has sought to distance himself from that promise in recent weeks without directly disavowing it, but he is struggling to turn the tide in favor of the reform.

A poll published this week by the TG 7 TV news showed that 34.1 percent of the electorate intended to vote 'No', 30.1 percent would vote 'Yes' and 35.8 percent were undecided.

(Reporting by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Gareth Jones)



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