Berlusconi backs new voting system
Published September 14th 2005 in ANSA
 (ANSA) - Rome, September 14 - Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi on Wednesday threw his weight behind a plan to reform the country's electoral system less than seven months before the nation goes to the polls .

The four parties in Berlusconi's ruling centre-right alliance on Tuesday agreed on a proposal to use an entirely proportional system to allocate seats in parliament .

Speaking in New York, where he was to attend the United Nations General Assembly, Berlusconi admitted he had still to see the details of the proposed reforms .

"But if there's a system which everyone is happy with, then we must push ahead," the premier said, rejecting the objection of the centre-left opposition that voting rules should not be changed just before an election .

"This is the right time to do it," he added .

Italy's current electoral system allocates 25% of parliamentary seats by proportional representation and the rest with a first-past-the-post system based on constituencies. New elections must be held in Italy by next spring and a probable date is in April. The most recent opinion polls put the centre-left alliance led by Romano Prodi ahead of the governing centre right .

Blasting the electoral reform bid as an "attempted coup", the centre left said on Wednesday it would block all parliamentary activity in order to stop the new system being approved. Such an important reform required the consensus of the opposition as well as the majority, it said .

"In the history of nations there are times when democracy is at stake. For Italy and parliament this is one of those moments," said Prodi, who accused the government of trying to rig the next elections in its favour .

The opposition argued that the reforms went against the will of voters, citing a 1993 public referendum in which Italians voted for the abolition of proportional representation .

The Democratic Left, the largest opposition party, said it would appeal to President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi to intervene .

"This is a democratic emergency... We will explain the gravity of the government's proposals to the president. It will then be up to Ciampi, in full autonomy, to decide what should be done," said Democratic Left leader Piero Fassino in a press interview on Wednesday .

Several analysts in newspapers said the system proposed by the centre right could give it an advantage in the next elections because it penalises small parties .

The new system would contain a clause requiring parties to obtain at least 4% of the national vote in order to gain representation. Votes that went to parties under that threshold would be subtracted from the coalition's total .

There are six parties in the centre-left alliance which are unlikely to make the 4% threshold and so their contribution to the opposition's overall tally would be lost, possibly handing victory to Berlusconi .

The reforms could also reduce the parliamentary majority of the winning coalition .

The proposals were seen as a move to appease the UDC, a small, centrist Catholic party in the coalition which has been threatening to abandon the alliance unless it gets its way over electoral reform .

The UDC has long been demanding the introduction of a proportional system, which would boost the number of seats gained by smaller parties passing the 4% threshold .

But in a fresh twist to the row on Wednesday, the UDC called for the abolition of the 4% cut-off clause .

The party issued a statement saying its stance showed that "we are not dealing with a law aimed at committing fraud (as alleged by the opposition) nor a tailor-made law. Instead we are open to broad and serious parliamentary dialogue with the opposition." A top member of Berlusconi's Forza Italia party, Isabella Bertolini, defended the bid to change the electoral system .

"Prodi should calm down and his coalition should stop telling lies. By making the electoral system more proportional, the governing coalition only wants to assure Italy of a more stable system and greater governability," she said .

Forza Italia national coordinator Sandro Bondi said that "we don't live in a normal country or in a normal democracy because we don't have a democratic Left here." Several Italian papers on Wednesday took a poor view of the reform initiative .

Corriere della Sera, Italy's biggest-selling daily, said in an editorial that "it could be that the new rules proposed would be better and more effective but that's not the point. The point is that the strongest player is deciding with an imperious act how to give himself an unfair advantage and blatantly disadvantage his adversary .

"This is not only damaging to institutional fair play but a sign of an unscrupulous abuse of the power of the majority," the daily said .