By Paolo Biondi
ROME (Reuters) - Italy's major political parties clashed on Wednesday over plans to change much-criticized electoral laws as maneuvering intensified ahead of a vote due to take place next May at the latest.
Both the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) and former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's People of Freedom party (PDL) want to change voting laws which will shape the government that succeeds Prime Minister Mario Monti's technocrat administration.
But they have failed to reach agreement after weeks of wrangling, despite optimism that a deal sought by all sides would be sealed before the parliamentary summer recess scheduled to start on August 10.
The debate has absorbed political attention, even while the country's economic crisis intensifies. It has also reminded voters of the fractious bickering that dominated Italian politics before Monti's arrival and is likely to return after his departure.
"I think there is a big, big chance of reaching an agreement on the electoral law and I think an agreement is not far off. But we would appreciate it if the PD didn't play dishonest games," PDL secretary Angelino Alfano told a news conference.
The PDL wants a system based on a French-style president, directly elected by voters and supported by parliament elected under a preferential voting system.
This formula is regarded with suspicion by the left, which says a constitutional change of such magnitude cannot be rushed through. "We don't want to be taken for a ride," PD leader Pier Luigi Bersani told reporters.
The current law, derided even by the minister who oversaw its introduction in 2005 as a "porcata" ("crap"), is a proportional system which does not allow the electorate to vote for individual candidates.
It has been widely criticized for allowing the parties to stuff their lists with unqualified placemen with no direct connection to the electorate and totally dependent on party hierarchies for their political careers.
The wrangling over the seemingly arcane issue of electoral reform underscores the jostling going on in preparation for next year's elections, when Monti has ruled out standing for a second term.
Speculation has been rife that elections could be held early despite the threat of financial market chaos if Monti left before, but without a new electoral law in place neither of the big parties would be ready to move.
"Without an electoral law, talk of early elections is just chatter," Bersani said this week.
PD leaders were still fuming over a Senate vote on Tuesday which saw the PDL join forces with their old allies in the Northern League to pass an amendment clearing the way for a directly elected president.
The amendment stands virtually no chance of gaining lower house approval, meaning it will not pass into law, but it angered Bersani, who accused the center-right of overturning the cross-party pact backing Monti's government in parliament.
"It is not good for the stability of the country," he said.
Behind their refusal to go ahead with the PDL is the suspicion that the plan is intended to favor a return of Berlusconi himself, who has given heavy hints that he is preparing a comeback. The prospect of a President Berlusconi has alarmed many.
The 75-year-old media billionaire was originally scheduled to be at Wednesday's news conference but dropped out at the last minute "so as not to give more pretexts to the left," Alfano said, accusing his rivals of "propagandistic outbursts".
Apart from its insistence on a directly elected president, who would appoint the prime minister, the PDL also wants individual candidates to be elected but wants the electoral bonus to go to the leading party rather than coalition.
"We want the bonus to go to the first party and we want citizens to be able to choose their own deputies through preferences," Alfano said.
The PD favors replacing the system with one which allows voters to choose their own candidates and wants to give an electoral bonus to the leading coalition to ensure that a stable government can be formed.
(Additional reporting by Massimiliano Di Giorgio; Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Andrew Heavens)