For a few months this year, it looked as though real reform might be around the corner. The centre-left government installed last May was committed to a major overhaul of the system, and the main opposition party, Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia, appeared sympathetic. It suits big parties on either side of the spectrum to know that if they win an election they can be sure of surviving in government for a full five years.
A special commission representing all parties and both houses of parliament began work in January with a mandate to report back in six months. Last week it was on the verge of a major breakthrough: a reinforced role for the prime minister and a twin-ballot electoral system along French lines, plus a package for greater federalism and a rethink of the powers of the judiciary. The parties were still arguing about the fine details, but the broad agreement was there.
Then the whole thing was scuppered by one man: the leader of the Northern League, Umberto Bossi. Mr Bossi, whose party has six votes on the 70-member commission, had turned his nose up at the whole process, arguing that his voters in the north did not wish to reform the country, they wanted to leave it.
But his six men turned up for the crucial vote on the new system and swayed the vote away from the "strong prime minister" package in favour of "semi-presidential" rule along French lines. Mr Bossi's commitment to semi-presidential rule seems dubious to say the least; one cannot help thinking his main aim was to sabotage the cross-party agreement for his own political purposes.
If that is what he wanted, he succeeded gloriously. Mr Berlusconi and his allies suddenly began trumpeting the virtues of semi-presidential rule and insisted that all negotiations had to start from scratch. Members of some pro-government parties talked about cancelling last week's vote and pretending Mr Bossi had never stuck his nose in the process at all.
The result has been a tragicomic opera of constitutional babble: more proportional representation being championed here, less federalism there, unfeasible compromises on the whole package everywhere. The truth is that changing the role of the president would involve such a major constitutional overhaul that it is to all intents and purposes impossible. Since the negotiations cannot go forward on that basis, they are effectively dead.
The episode is the latest sorry twist in a tale that dates to the foundation of the republic, when fear of strong government following the defeat of Fascism led to endemic weaknesses in every aspect of political life including a strictly proportional electoral system to keep parties small and numerous.
One prime opportunity to change all that, during the corruption scandals that destroyed the political status quo in the early 1990s, was squandered as a new electoral law was introduced only to compound the problem by returning more, not less, parties to parliament.
The present centre-left government, led by Romano Prodi, is every bit as weak as its predecessors and may well fall in the next few months. If Italy cannot at least introduce effective voting reform before the next election, that weakness seems doomed to persist into the next millennium.Reuse content