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Italy Election Bill Advances as Renzi Faces Uphill Battle

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has said electoral law changes are only the first step in his agenda. Photographer: Alessia Pierdomenico/Bloomberg

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi secured passage of a new election bill in the Chamber of Deputies, a first step in what remains an uphill battle to make Italy more governable.

The lower house approved the legislation 365 to 156 today, according to its website. The bill, which will now go to the Senate for final approval, sets higher thresholds for smaller parties and introduces a second round if no party or coalition gets 37 percent of the votes in the first. Even if the approval marks a step forward for Renzi, who set it as the first goal on his agenda as premier, it will only apply to the lower house.

Renzi initially wanted the new law to go hand in hand with a plan to make the Senate a non-elected assembly of local governments’ representatives, stripping it of its legislative powers. He was forced to separate the two issues in order to secure the backing of former Premier Silvio Berlusconi’s party on a package of reforms.

The best case scenario is that Renzi “gets the electoral system he wants in a year, earliest,” Federico Santi, an analyst with Eurasia Group, said in a March 7 interview.

The parliament may take several months to push through constitutional changes to the Senate. That means that if elections were called before Senate changes take effect, Italy could face a hung parliament as a Constitutional Court ruling left the upper house with a proportional system.

“If the government were to come to an unexpected end, the next legislature could be totally ungovernable,” Wolfango Piccoli, an analyst with Teneo Intelligence in London, said in a research report on March 5.

Fragmented Parliament

The country’s previous election law, which gave one coalition control of the Chamber of Deputies while fragmenting representation in the Senate, produced an inconclusive result in February elections last year. In December, the Italian Constitutional Court declared parts of the law inapplicable, increasing pressure on lawmakers to come up with a deal.

Renzi, 39, the youngest head of government in post-World War II Italy, took office on Feb. 22 after toppling Enrico Letta’s government in an intra-party dispute. The former mayor of Florence was elected general secretary of the Democratic Party in December after building his career as a critic of Italy’s political establishment.

Renzi has said electoral law changes are only the first step in his agenda. He also promised changes to labor legislation, to public administration and to fiscal policy within the end of May. Plans for tax cuts and an overhaul of the country’s labor market are due to be unveiled today.

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