By Roberto Landucci
ROME (Reuters) - Prime Minister Matteo Renzi won a vote of confidence in the Senate on Wednesday on a proposal to reduce the powers of provincial governments as part of his pledge to cut the cost of Italy's political apparatus.
The provinces have for many years been considered a wasteful and largely superfluous layer of local government whose tasks could be redistributed among the smaller town councils and the larger regional authorities.
However, repeated pledges by recent governments to abolish the 110 provincial councils, while ostensibly supported across the political spectrum, have floundered in the face of opposition by parties which exploit them as local power bases.
Renzi, who took office last month promising to streamline Italy's political institutions, got a taste of the opposition he may face when his bill to abolish provincial elections was twice defeated on Tuesday in parliamentary committees.
The setbacks prompted him to call Wednesday's confidence vote, a tactic often used to truncate debate and speed the passage of legislation. If the government loses such a vote it is forced to resign.
Renzi is proposing to abolish the direct election of provincial governments, but not scrap them altogether. In future
representatives would be nominated by town mayors and councilors.
His broad, left-right coalition won the Senate confidence vote by 160 to 133. The bill must now return to the Chamber of Deputies, where Renzi hopes it will be approved in time to avoid provincial elections due on May 25.
However the fact that 133 senators voted against the bill in the secret ballot may be a warning ahead of Renzi's far more contentious plan to abolish the Senate itself in its current form.
He wants to transform it into an unelected chamber representing local government, with virtually no legislative powers, and has said he will quit politics if he fails to achieve this within a year.
Renzi said his bill to curb the provincial governments would cut the number of elected politicians by 3,000 and save around 800 million euros, calling it "a way of restoring hope and trust to our citizens."
Many critics say it will have little or no impact on costs, however. While voters will no longer elect provincial officials, the agencies, firms and functions connected to them will remain in place, with responsibility for running them passing to city mayors.
Renato Brunetta, lower house leader of Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia, the largest opposition party, called the bill "a big con" aimed at reinforcing the centre-left's control of local politics because it traditionally does well in mayoral ballots.
Roberto Maroni, president of the northern Lombardy region and a senior member of the pro-autonomy Northern League, said the bill would mean less efficient government and end up increasing costs rather than reducing them.
(Writing by Gavin Jones; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)