Renzi Wins Vote to Overhaul Roman Senate in Blow to Elite

  • Reform of upper house aims to end short-lived governments
  • Measure seen ensuring Italy will be "run more efficiently"

Prime Minister Matteo Renzi won initial approval for an overhaul of Italy’s Senate aimed at eliminating revolving-door governments in a country which has seen 63 governments since the end of the Second World War.

The Roman Senate, or upper house, agreed by 179 votes to 16 to curtail its powers, including the possibility to bring down governments, as well as cutting the number of senators to 100 from 315. Several opposition parties boycotted the vote in protest.

The youthful Renzi, who has said he will resign if his reform fails to win definitive approval in successive votes which will spill over into next year, proclaimed victory even before the vote. "You can agree or not with what we’re doing, but we’re doing it: the long season of inconclusive politics is over," he wrote in a post on Facebook.

Tuesday’s approval is not definitive. The reform -- the biggest change so far to a constitution which has fathered 63 governments since 1946 -- has to be approved twice more by the lower house and once again by the Senate. Renzi has said a referendum on the issue will be held in late 2016.

Under the proposal, most bills will no longer have to be approved by both the Senate and the lower chamber to become law, and the Senate will lose the power to bring down governments with a vote of no confidence. Senators will no longer be directly elected, and they will be replaced by regional councilors and mayors who won’t be paid.

More Efficient

"The reform guarantees that Italy will be run more efficiently," Franco Pavoncello, president of the John Cabot University in Rome, said in a phone interview. "Under the current system, every law has to be approved by both the Senate and the lower chamber, and if you change a comma the text has to go back to the other house."

Some opposition parties criticized the measure as giving too much power to the executive branch and walked out of the Senate before the vote, with members of the Northern League brandishing copies of the Constitution.

Ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi, leader of the center-right Forza Italia, denounced "the first step on a dangerous path." He said giving only one chamber lawmaking power and allowing a single party to be in command, "leads us straight towards a non-democracy."

Regional Representation

Supporters of the measure say it mirrors upper houses in other European Union countries, such as the Bundesrat in Germany, which ensure regional representation and prevent small parties or groups from blackmailing the executive with the threat of a vote of confidence.

General elections are due by early 2018 but Renzi’s government could fall if the reform fails at the next key hurdles -- a second vote in the Senate and the referendum.

"If Renzi loses the referendum, for example, we’ll surely see an early election because he’s said he would quit if the reform fails. But he’s built up a momentum," Pavoncello said. "Today’s Senate vote was decisive because it was the first reading in a chamber where he has a slender majority. Things look more downhill from now on."

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