Italian legislators approve Berlusconi-backed electoral reform

Premier Silvio Berlusconi scored a victory Thursday when legislators approved a government-backed bill that would change rules for electing parliament _ a reform the center-left opposition contends will return Italy to political instability.

The vote in the Chamber of Deputies caps weeks of bitter controversy over the bill, which proposes a return to full proportional representation. It came just months before national elections, scheduled for next spring.

While the vote is not final _ Senate approval is still needed _ it cleared the first hurdle for the bill and was seen as a victory for Berlusconi, whose parliamentary majority closed ranks as demanded by the premier.

"It's a nice show of unity from the center-right coalition," Berlusconi said as he left parliament.

Berlusconi in recent weeks has endorsed the proposal _ originally pushed by a small ally _ and made it a top priority of his last months in office.

In an unusual step, he has attended most of the parliamentary debate, which at times has been heated. At one point this week, opposition deputies held up signs that described the bill as a "shame."

Full proportional representation is a system widely blamed for decades of revolving-door governments in the country.

Italians voted in a referendum in 1993 to jettison it, in a bid to make parliament more directly elected and governments more stable. The referendum came amid the "Clean Hands" probes, which revealed widespread corruption among political parties.

Now, three-quarters of the seats are filled by directly elected candidates, with the remainder still attributed on a proportional representation basis _ divided up according to the percentage of the overall vote each party wins.

The opposition argues that changing the rules unilaterally and just months before a national election is not fair. It also says the reform is designed to improve the performance of the conservatives at the vote.

Opposition leader Piero Fassino described the plan as "an act of arrogance" and said the legislation would "increase the instability of this country."

"Changing the rules of the game won't be enough to spare yourself a bad defeat," Fassino told lawmakers. Opposition deputies abstained from voting in protest.

The conservatives insist the reform would ensure a fairer distribution of parliamentary seats, and that the current system has failed to provide any more stability to Italy's governments.

Opinion polls have indicated Berlusconi is headed for defeat in the elections, and analysts say that the new system would likely give the winner a narrower parliamentary majority.

Berlusconi's parliamentary majority was united in backing the reform, dashing opposition hopes that some center-right politicians _ some of whom have expressed reservations _ would vote against the bill during the secret ballot.

On Wednesday, some conservatives took advantage of the secret balloting to vote against a government-proposed measure in the bill that would have obliged parties to name a female candidate for each male candidate, AP reported. V.A.

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