By Gavin Jones
ROME (Reuters) - Italy's Senate approved Matteo Renzi's electoral reforms on Tuesday, giving the prime minister a boost as he faces criticism from the left of his party over his pact with Silvio Berlusconi.
The bill passed by 184 votes to 66 with many opponents of the reform in the 315 seat Senate opting not to take part in the vote. The bill will now go to the Chamber of Deputies for final approval which is expected in the next couple of months.
Changing voting rules to ensure a clear winner at elections and more stable government have been a priority for Renzi since he became leader of the Democratic Party (PD) at the end of 2013.
What enrages the left of the PD is his determination to do it with Berlusconi, the former prime minister who they say should have been excluded from politics after he was expelled from the Senate and barred from office due to a conviction for tax fraud in 2013.
The so-called "Nazarene Pact", named after the PD's headquarters in Rome's Via del Nazareno where Renzi first met Berlusconi to plan an electoral reform in January last year, has become the central theme of Italy's politics.
Renzi dismisses the idea that there is any hidden agenda in his dealings with Berlusconi, but suspicions are fueled by the fact that the latest version of the voting reform seems clearly against Berlusconi's own electoral interests.
This is because it gives a large bonus of parliamentary seats to the winning party, rather than the winning coalition as was originally agreed.
Berlusconi has proved a skilful builder of center-right coalitions but polls suggest his Forza Italia party is now Italy's third or fourth largest party and so would have little chance of the winner's bonus.
The bonus goes to the party that wins the most votes as long as it gets more than 40 percent of the total. If no party wins 40 percent in the first round, a second round would pit the top two performers against each other.
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Last week 29 PD senators refused to back the reform, depriving Renzi of his majority. They were replaced by the support of Berlusconi's Forza Italia party.
PD lawmaker and former leader Guglielmo Epifani said the situation was "unheard of" and accused Renzi of "dealing with everyone but not with a significant part of his own party." Many commentators expect the eventual formation of a PD break-away party.
The PD rebels protest that under the reform most of the candidates elected will be nominated by national party bosses rather than chosen directly by voters.
Renzi's meetings with Berlusconi are not followed by news conferences or press releases, prompting charges of opacity and suspicions the real agenda is broader than electoral reform.
"What's in it for Berlusconi?" is the question posed by leftist PD deputy Giuseppe Civati and other party rebels.
One answer is that by co-operating with Renzi on electoral reform the veteran center-right leader has also assured himself a central role in negotiations over who will replace Giorgio Napolitano as president of the republic.
The president can nominate prime ministers, dissolve parliament and call elections. He also has the power to grant pardons, something of particular interest to Berlusconi. Parliament will begin voting for a new president on Thursday.
The leftists' protests reached fever pitch early this month when the media discovered a last-minute government amendment to a tax bill which would have de-criminalized balance sheet fraud for any sum below 3 percent of a company's annual income.
The amendment would have wiped out Berlusconi's tax fraud conviction and meant he was once more eligible for office. Renzi backed down but rather than just scrap the amendment he put the whole tax bill on ice and said he would review it next month.
(Additional reporting by Roberto Landucci; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)