By James Mackenzie and Valentina Consiglio
ROME (Reuters) - With Silvio Berlusconi now out of parliament, Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta is under pressure to overhaul a voting law blamed for dragging Italy into political and economic stalemate after the last election.
Letta was appointed to lead an unwieldy government of left and right forces after a vote in February this year yielded no clear winner.
When he named the 47-year-old center-left politician, President Giorgio Napolitano gave him the task of overhauling a dysfunctional political and justice system that has stifled Italy's economic growth for years. Letta's administration was supposed to repair the system to prevent chronic political instability.
The ripple effects of Berlusconi's legal battles - in particular the lead-up and aftermath of the former premier's conviction for fraud in August - largely sidetracked the government during its first seven months, however. That disruption has ostensibly subsided after Berlusconi's ejection from the Senate.
Now leading a smaller alliance made up of his center-left Democratic Party, a breakaway group of rebels from Berlusconi's Forza Italia movement and a few centrists, Letta has made it clear that electoral reform is key.
A new push to change the law, described by Letta as an "absolute evil", comes with the constitutional court also due to hear a challenge this week on the grounds that the system deprives voters of their constitutional rights to fair representation and a working system of government.
Most Italian politicians agree, at least in public, that the law must change. Yet despite repeated exhortations from leaders ranging from business and union chiefs to Napolitano, progress has been blocked for years by parties calculating that a change could hand their rivals an advantage.
The persistent stalling also underlined the problems that have held up wider reforms of the economy, with rival political forces unable to get past their mutual antagonism and compromise on an issue which all agree guarantees instability.
"It's a reform that affects the vital interests of the parties and in an extremely uncertain situation, they are struggling to decide," said Roberto D'Alimonte, a professor at Rome's LUISS university and one of Italy's foremost experts on electoral systems. "Everyone wants reform, but what reform? That's the question," D'Alimonte said.
If it does not change, however, any future election risks producing the same kind of inconclusive result seen this year.
Derided even by the conservative minister responsible for its creation in 2005 as a "porcata" (a coarse expression roughly equivalent to "crap") and always bitterly criticized by the left who believe it was designed to keep them out of power, the electoral law might have been designed to alienate voters and prevent the formation of a stable government.
Parliamentarians are not directly elected. When voters go to the polls, they choose a single list drawn up by a party and not a candidate with any link to their territory. That generally leaves national lawmakers without any direct link to the electorate and entirely in thrall to party bosses.
A winner's premium with no minimum threshold also means that a party with no majority and only a tiny advantage over its rivals can win crushing control. That is a real problem in an electorate split into three hostile but roughly equal blocs of centre-right and centre-left with the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement just behind.
Finally, the two chambers enjoy equal powers to pass and reject legislation but unlike the lower house, the Senate is voted along regional lines in 20 separate regions that make forming a solid overall parliamentary majority a lottery.
"Either we get rid of this twin chamber system, reduce the number of parliamentarians and give ourselves a new institutional set-up or we are going to sink," Fabrizio Cicchitto, one of the leading members of the centre-right group which supports Letta, said at the weekend.
A variety of proposals have circulated, including a return to the pre-2005 voting law, forms of proportional voting or a run-off system along the lines of the French model, with two rounds of voting to produce a winner.
However no agreement has emerged and without a two-thirds majority in parliament needed to change the constitution, it is almost impossible for a government to reform the law on its own.
On Tuesday, the Constitutional Court is due to begin hearing a series of challenges to the law but there may be no decision until early in January, according to sources close to the court.
Many analysts say that without reform, Italy will be condemned to permanent political instability although others, like Lucio Malan, a senator in Berlusconi's Forza Italia party, say the problem runs deeper.
"No electoral law can guarantee stability if the vote is fragmented and the rival forces cancel each other out," he said.
(Editing by Angus MacSwan)