Italy's Renzi flexes muscles in electoral reform drive

Reuters News
Posted: Jan 22, 2014 7:25 PM

By James Mackenzie

ROME (Reuters) - Italian center-left leader Matteo Renzi's brisk dismissal of party critics who opposed a deal with their old nemesis Silvio Berlusconi on electoral reform has injected momentum into a political system frozen in deadlock for months.

The package now comes before parliament where a wily caste of lobbyists is long practiced in smothering ambitious reform plans in back-room amendments. But for the moment, the initiative lies with the 39-year-old mayor of Florence.

For years, as Italy's economy slid deeper into crisis, politicians had wrung their hands but failed to act over an electoral system almost universally blamed for the alienation of voters and the chronic inability to create stable governments capable of passing effective reforms.

"He's succeeded in dealing with all sides that were willing to discuss the issue and came up with a deal that left no one completely satisfied but which was practical," said Lorenzo De Sio, coordinator of the Italian Centre for Electoral Studies at Rome's LUISS university.

As things stand, the proposals would favor big parties and squeeze out the host of smaller groups blamed for thwarting viable governments. They would also concentrate power in the lower house of parliament, all but eliminating the Senate, which at present has virtually exactly equal powers with the Chamber of Deputies.

Renzi has promised that a successful conclusion of a deal on election rules will open the way for wider economic reforms, starting with a new "Jobs Act" to be unveiled shortly.

Boosted by a triumph in the Democratic Party (PD) primary in December, he has shown scant regard for his party colleague Prime Minister Enrico Letta, a careful, old-school consensus builder who has held a fragile coalition together during months of turbulence, but who has now been completely eclipsed.

Renzi has also seen off two senior adversaries, former Deputy Economy Minister Stefano Fassina and former party chairman Gianni Cuperlo, who quit on Tuesday after Renzi steamrollered his electoral reform proposals through the PD leadership.

Despite rumblings from the left, where many have been angered by Renzi's personal ambition and brusque contempt for the old guard, his supporters insist that the 2 million votes he secured in the primary showed that voters wanted change.

"The point is that there's a part of the old PD which has not admitted to itself that there's been a change," Manuela Ripetti, a senator close to Renzi, told RAI state radio. "There's a big difference between people who vote for the left and (for) the PD machine," she said.


Tireless, fast-talking and apparently happier gulping Coca Cola and pizza than lunching in the discreet Rome restaurants favored by senior Italian politicians, Renzi has always represented a clear change of style.

However the electoral reform deal is a first concrete sign that his full-frontal approach could produce the kind of results that eluded the cautious moderates who have dominated Italy's left for decades.

"This is Renzi's real gift," said De Sio, whose institute conducts regular surveys on how voters score politicians for competence, honesty, energy and sympathy.

"Energy is a quality where Berlusconi has always dominated and where center-left leaders have always been very weak. Renzi is the first center-left leader to beat Berlusconi on this point and the electoral reform issue shows this clearly."

Although not in government at present, Renzi has made no secret of his intention to seek the prime ministership in future. But there has been considerable uncertainty over where his real priorities and political instincts lie.

Many on the left fear that the electoral reform agreed with Berlusconi will offer a way back to the 77-year-old media billionaire who had been struggling to regain his political footing after a tax fraud conviction that has shut him out of parliament.

The official text of the proposals has been filed with the Constitutional Affairs committee in parliament and is to come before the full chamber for debate, probably next week.

Much remains to be done and the biggest test for Renzi may come when he tangles with the small centrist and center-right parties that support Letta's government and would risk extinction if the proposals pass unchanged.

They will seek to dismantle some of the hurdles to getting back into parliament and their experience with the new head of the center-left has already left many bruised and preparing for a fight on the assembly floor.

"Renzi has a strange conception of democracy both in his own camp and outside," said Vicenzo Piso, a lawmaker from the New Centre Right party which broke away from Berlusconi's Forza Italia last year to support Letta.

(Editing by Mark Heinrich)