Italians take a do-it-yourself approach to electoral reform: The people look set to bring in a first-past-the-post system after politicians failed to make changes, writes Patricia Clough in Rome

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The Independent Online
With Italy's disgraced political parties apparently incapable of producing electoral reform, Italian voters are going to have to do it themselves.

One Sunday between mid-May and mid-June they will vote in a referendum on whether, in effect, to replace Italy's proportional electoral system with a majority one. All the signs are they will give a resounding 'yes'.

The referendum was intended by its sponsors as a threat to galvanise parliament into passing a new electoral law. And it still could - just - be stopped if MPs produce a law before it takes place. But the joint commission set up by the two houses to reform the system threw in the towel last week and the chances of anyone else getting a bill passed in time are minimal.

Future historians will probably point to the Bicamerale, as the commission is called, as a prize example of how the degenerate political parties lacked sufficient public spirit to do away with a bankrupt system which has given them extraordinarily far-reaching power, money and cushy jobs for so long. For, as one critic put it, 'it is like asking turkeys to cook Christmas lunch'.

First, Mario Segni, the Christian Democrat MP who is the leading campaigner for electoral reform and co- sponsor of the referendums which are breaking down the system while the politicians look on, was excluded from the commission. (He was later brought in after a huge outcry in the press.)

Its proceedings soon began to boggle Italian minds, with parties producing proposals, backtracking, squabbling, members resigning and finally agreeing only to put an end to it all next week. 'The only clear thing (to emerge) is that there are massive whirlpools of confusion,' said Giovanni Sartori, a political scientist at Columbia University, New York, who has been following it. Professor Sardori said he doubted the MPs actually understood the various systems they were discussing.

One important development, however, was that during the process the Christian Democrats, the largest party which had been fighting a rearguard action to keep the proportional system, suddenly changed its mind. The principle, at least, of a majority system now seems established.

The bone of contention is now what kind: the British first-past-the-post method or the French system, with two rounds. The Christian Democrats are insisting on the first, having woken up rather belatedly to the fact that they would come out best, being the strongest party in most constitutuences in the south and maybe central Italy - the Northern League would probably do best in the north.

But the British system resulted from a two-party tradition: Italy has a tradition of many parties and the result could be hung parliaments. Moreover, it could prove too drastic for Italians, accustomed to greater mathematical fairness and the search for consensus.

At present a majority of MPs and parties appears to lean towards the French system under which, if one candidate does not get an absolute majority, a run-off is required the following Sunday between those who get more than 12.5 per cent of the vote.

It is ironic that, while there are moves afoot in Britain for a more proportional system, the Italians are heading in the opposite direction. Probably too much blame has been heaped on the country's extremely complicated electoral law for its present political mess. But a majority system to many appears to offer an end to the fragmentation into 10 or more parties, stronger governments rather than large, weak coalitions and, above all, to a genuine alternation of parties in power, which has not happened since the Seond World War.

Most important, particularly to ordinary Italians, MPs and senators would be far more dependent on, and responsible to, their voters whereas at present their first allegiance is to their parties.