ROME (Reuters) - Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, speaking on Monday to a half-empty parliament that had been abandoned by the opposition, defended his flagship constitutional reform, due to be voted on this week.
After more than two years in parliament, voting will begin in the lower house on Tuesday on the measure aimed at streamlining the legislative process.
Renzi has an ample majority to pass the bill, but he has said he will resign if the law is not definitively approved by Italians in a popular referendum to be held in the autumn.
Protesting against the bill with megaphones outside the lower house, the opposition 5-Star Movement said the legislation would eliminate Italy's system of checks and balances.
The bill will effectively abolish the upper house Senate by cutting the number of senators by two-thirds, stripping it of its ability to bring down a government and sharply limiting its scope to block legislation. It will also return to Rome some powers now held by the regional governments.
"We're coming close to a model of democracy that can make decisions. A democracy that does not decide is the precursor to dictatorship," Renzi said.
"Democracy isn't about fleeing the assembly when I realize I don't have the numbers," he said.
To guard against handing too much power to any one group after Benito Mussolini's Fascist rule, Italy's 1948 constitution created two parliamentary assemblies with equal powers, making lawmaking cumbersome and slow.
"We'll leave the government alone to stomp all over parliamentary democracy," said Renato Brunetta, president of Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia lawmakers in the lower house, after announcing his group would abandon the assembly.
While protesting against the bill, the 5-Star Movement also called on Renzi to quit over an influence-peddling scandal that led to the resignation of the industry minister last month.
Following the scandal, Renzi's Democratic Party (PD) recorded its lowest rating since last summer in a poll published in la Repubblica newspaper on Sunday.
(Reporting by Steve Scherer; Editing by Richard Balmforth)