Berlusconi hastens to change voting rules before 2006 election

Premier Silvio Berlusconi's conservative forces pushed ahead Tuesday with plans to change the rules for electing parliament, defying critics who say the new system will return Italy to the political instability of past decades. The electoral reform was being discussed in the Senate after being approved in the lower house of parliament in October. Final approval was expected Wednesday, with the new system well in place for a general election expected in April.

The bill proposes a complicated version of pure proportional representation, a system Italians abandoned more than a decade ago in a bid to make the legislature more directly elected. Critics contend the new system risks creating razor-thin majorities in the Senate, increasing government shakiness. Center-left opposition lawmakers also accused the government of arrogance for attempting to change the rules of the game unilaterally, and just months before the election, for reasons of self-interest.

"With the final approval of the new electoral law, this majority and this government will do yet another disservice to the country," opposition leader Romano Prodi, the center-left candidate for premier at the elections, said Tuesday. Prodi contended that the legislation was "unpatriotic," and was designed "in the exclusive interest of those who want to make a certain electoral defeat less burning," and vowed to repeal it if his bloc wins.

The conservatives insist the reform would ensure a fairer distribution of parliamentary seats. Berlusconi has defended the reform as "absolutely democratic." "The majority is approving a law that gives power to the citizens and restores a central role for political parties," said Mario Tassone of the conservative bloc.

Full proportional representation has been blamed for decades of revolving-door governments in the country. Italians voted against it in a 1993 referendum, held as the "Clean Hands" probes exposed widespread corruption among political parties. Currently, 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. Experts say that the proposed system would likely reduce the gap between the winner and the loser, thus making governments more shaky, reports the AP. N.U.

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