Italian voters await chance for reform: Proportional representation may end after forthcoming referendum to change national politics

Click to follow
IF Harold Wilson thought a week was a long time in politics, for Giuliano Amato the time until 18 April must seem an eternity. The referendums on that date will be the most crucial event in Italy's present political transition, a vital step from its collapsing First Republic to its Second. In the most important one, Italians will say whether they want to change to a majority electoral system or whether they want to keep the proportional one.

Shocked and disgusted at the revelations of what the old system has produced, they are almost certain to vote a substantial 'yes' for reform. And, with luck, that should change the face of politics in Italy.

But the days to 18 April are moving slowly and the whole political world is collapsing unnervingly fast. By rights, Mr Amato's flimsy government should have fallen on Tuesday at the very latest. With the Socialists backing out, the Christian Democrats in disarray, the smaller parties made leaderless by the scandals and now, with the sixth minister in six weeks resigning under a cloud, there seemed no way he could go on.

Yet President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro is determined that the campaign and the referendums should go ahead without the tensions, uncertainties and the power vacuum involved in a regular government crisis. So he is keeping the government on a life-support system until the vote and meanwhile trying to muster a wider majority for some kind of 'institutional' government to take over after that date. The bigger parties do not like the idea and how Mr Amato will manage, especially if more ministers come under investigation, remains to be seen.

Referendums, and the mere threat of referendums, have become important weapons with which the Italian public has forced its political class to take notice of its wishes. The first sensational one, in 1974, approved divorce and dealt a severe blow to the Catholic Church's influence over public life. The threat of another induced parliament to legalise abortion.

Now referendums are being used to achieve what the parties have proved incapable of doing on their own: reform of the electoral system and a curb on the parties' vast power. The ball started rolling on 9 June 1990 when a 95.6 per cent majority voted for more control over which actual member of their chosen party got into parliament. The general elections the next year showed that the collapse of the old parties had begun.

The organisers of the main 18 April referendum are presenting it as a choice between the old discredited system and a bright, clean, effective one. Above all, they say, a majority system like the British or the French one would at last give Italians the chance to vote out an unwanted government and replace it with another - just like anywhere else.

In fact, for highly technical reasons, they will be simply voting to eliminate passages from the law on elections to the Senate so that, instead of a predominantly proportional one, it becomes three-quarters majority and one quarter proportional. The organisers would see a 'yes' victory as a sign that Italians want a majority system for the Chamber of Deputies too - the constitution bars a referendum on this.

A further referendum, out of the 10 originally planned for the day, would introduce majority voting for all Italy's towns and cities. Other referendums would abolish the state funding of political parties and end state control over certain areas of the economy. There are also votes on drug laws, funding for the south, environmental control and the shift of powers from the national to regional governments. Some of these referendums may be dropped if, as seems likely, parliament passes legislation on the subject first.

The prime mover behind the electoral referendums is Mario Segni. He is a man to watch. A middle-ranking former Christian Democrat from Sardinia, patient, determined, cautious - some say too cautious - he has been doggedly fighting for political reform and is now aiming to create a new, broad popular party vaguely on American lines. It is quite likely that he will be one of the main political leaders of the future.

With two and a half weeks to go, the campaign is still very low key, with few posters or leaflets to be seen. The campaigners for a 'yes' vote are better organised: when Mr Segni called in the press to witness him putting up his first poster last week the 'no' committee was having its first organisational meeting.

And as time goes on, Italy being Italy, the thing gets less simple. As if to queer Mr Segni's pitch, the ruling parties are generally supporting the 'yes' camp, too. The 'no' campaigners include hardline Communists, Greens, some factions of the parties that are voting 'yes', assorted extra-parliamentary groups and the neo- fascists - to whom, as usual, none of the others are speaking.

(Photograph omitted)