Italy's voting law set for approval: Patricia Clough reports from Rome on fears that electoral reforms will not prove successful

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The Independent Online
ITALY'S new electoral law, which exchanges the bankrupt ultra-proportional system for a predominantly majority one, is to be approved by the Chamber of Deputies on Wednesday.

The last of its individual clauses was agreed last week after a remarkably swift and trouble-free passage. Barring some 'ambush' by disgruntled members under cover of a secret vote, the bill as a whole should be passed. But no one is happy with it, least of all those who hoped it would bring Italy a clear-cut British-style system.

The law 'was to produce stable majorities, alternating blocs and governability', said Giovanni Sartori, a lecturer in politics, writing in Corriere della Sera. 'It will produce the complete opposite.'

Under the bill, 75 per cent of the members of the Chamber of Deputies will be elected by a first-past-the-post majority system. The rest will be elected, on separate ballot papers, under a proportional system intended, through a highly complex device, to favour smaller parties which would be unlikely to win any under the majority system. It sets, however, a threshold of 4 per cent for representation. Voting will take place in one round, not two, as leading reformers wanted.

The proportional 25 per cent, nicknamed the 'Indian reservation', is one of the most controversial parts of the bill, partly because it is seen to preserve, although much reduced, the power of political parties and the old mentality inherited from the proportional system.

Initially it was fiercely attacked because the parties were to put up set lists of candidates on a take-it-or- leave-it basis, which critics argued would enable them to slide old, discredited politicians back into parliament under the voters' noses. But this was changed so that voters can indicate the candidates they prefer.

Giorgio Galli, one of Italy's leading professors of politics, predicted gloomily that the bill will 'reduce to the minimum the renewal of the political class in a fragmented parliament'. The proportional 25 per cent will result in large numbers of lists 'which will make it practically impossible to form large aggregations'.

One round of voting, rather than the French two-round system, which compels parties to form alliances, will make things worse, he said. Whereas in countries with only two or three parties, the winning party usually has at least 40 per cent of the vote, in Italy either a party could win with only 25 per cent of the vote, or else no party would have a majority at all. In that case the government would have to be formed from some parliamentary combination and would not be the expression of the voters' will.

Sergio Mattarella, the Christian Democrat who is author of most of the bill, has called it 'the best of all possible electoral systems'. But Dr Sartori profoundly disagreed. '(It) is one of the worst possible sums of all the defects of the majority system and of the proportional system,' he wrote. 'It will produce the worst Chamber in our history.'

The fear of instability is already making electoral reformers talk of taking counter-measures. Mario Segni, the campaigner for reform who saw several of his aims defeated in the Chamber, and others, are now suggesting having the prime minister directly elected by the voters. Other reformers are even advocating a presidential system.

Once passed, the bill goes to the Senate. The Chamber has allowed four months for setting up the new constituencies, which means general elections under the new system may be held in early spring next year.