Italian Court Boosts Renzi’s Push for Early Elections

  • Constitutional court rules on voting system for lower house
  • Renzi pushing for comeback this year after referendum loss

Italian Court Decision Boosts Renzi’s Comeback Bid

Italy moved a step closer to fresh elections this year after the Constitutional Court effectively devised a new voting system for the country, giving a boost to former Premier Matteo Renzi.

The court had been asked to rule on Renzi’s electoral reform, which was passed in 2015, and struck down a provision for a run-off vote for the lower house, saying it should be held in just one round. The rest of the law was left largely intact and the court ruled that it can be applied immediately.

Italian politics have been in limbo since Renzi lost a referendum on a separate constitutional reform in December, with President Sergio Mattarella saying he was reluctant to call new elections until differences between the electoral systems for the lower house and the Senate were smoothed out.

Renzi’s party swiftly insisted on early elections soon after the ruling. “We need to vote immediately,” said Ettore Rosato, chief whip for the Democratic Party, or PD, in the lower house, stressing that the new law could be used straight away.

Renzi, who remains leader of the PD, the biggest group in parliament, is pushing for elections by early June. He resigned following his referendum defeat, and backed Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni as his successor.

‘Good for Renzi’

“The ruling is good for Renzi because it makes the electoral system for the lower house more proportional, more similar to the Senate,” Giovanni Tarli Barbieri, a professor of constitutional law at Florence University, said in a phone interview. “It’s now up to the mainstream parties to see whether they can or want to make even more changes.”

“The outcome, overall, increases the likelihood of snap polls by June,” according to Teneo Intelligence Co-President Wolfango Piccoli.

Most political parties have called for parliament to approve a new electoral law to take account of the court’s ruling, but they are divided on how to shape a new system.

The Italian establishment is concerned that the populist Five Star Movement could win the bonus for topping the election, helping them achieve their goal of a referendum on Italy’s membership of the euro area. Five Star is neck and neck with the Democratic Party in opinion polls.

Majority Bonus

Any change to the voting system will also have to take into account a detailed report the court is due to release in late February. Wednesday’s ruling preserves a majority bonus for the leading party which wins at least 40 percent of the vote in the first round, or which wins the run-off ballot.

“We now basically have two proportional laws for the two houses, the only exception is if someone gets 40 percent and gets the premium in the lower house," Enzo Palumbo, a lawyer for a court in Messina, southern Italy, which appealed the law, told reporters outside the court. “If nobody gets the premium, there won’t be a run-off and seats in the lower house will be assigned on a proportional basis,” he said.

The so-called Italicum law was designed to provide more political stability in Italy by awarding the bonus seats. But with the composition of the Senate determined by a proportional voting system, the law raised the prospect of potential gridlock if different majorities control the two chambers.

Five Star pressed for elections as soon as possible. “We’ve always said that we want to vote with the law which the ruling produces, and among other things it would appear to be immediately applicable,” Alessandro Di Battista, a senior Five Star lawmaker, said after the ruling.

A few hours before the ruling, Renzi started a new blog, writing that millions of Italians have “a clear and beautiful idea of Italy’s future.” He added: “These millions of Italians don’t give up. I want to walk with them.” Renzi listed priorities as the role of European Union institutions, tax cuts, protecting those who had lost out on globalization, and fighting poverty.

— With assistance by Chiara Albanese

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