Renzi’s Italian gamble is worth taking

April 30, 2015

By Neil Unmack

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Matteo Renzi is risking chaos for the sake of stability. Italy’s premier is using confidence votes to ram though electoral reform. It’s a controversial move, which could bring the government down. Yet the cause is worthy.

There’s little doubt about the need. Weak and short-lived governments have been the rule since World War Two, thanks to a fragmented political landscape and bad electoral laws. The economy has suffered from the ability of small parties and well-placed interest groups to use political chaos to block reforms.

Renzi’s Italicum is supposed to change that, by producing stronger parties and more stable governments. It will introduce a proportional representation system, with two rounds of votes and coalitions fixed at the outset. That will prevent three-way runoffs like the one which produced the current government in 2013. A premium of 55 percent of the seats for the largest party should lead to fewer, stronger parties. A second law, expected later this year, will weaken the Senate. That will further streamline governance.

The plan has been criticised as undemocratic. Like the current system, it limits voters’ ability to choose parliamentarians. The premium seats concentrate power and the retention of a low threshold for entering parliament, 3 percent of the vote, could keep the opposition fragmented, at least initially.

The criticisms have some merit, but change is urgently needed and the law is a step forward. Renzi, though, is having trouble getting it through parliament. A faction of his own party is revolting while his erstwhile ally, opposition leader Silvio Berlusconi, is proving fickle. Renzi has resorted to votes of confidence in the whole government.

The ploy is working. One of the three votes has already gone Renzi’s way; his opponents fear blame for creating uncertainty, or just don’t want to risk their jobs in a new election. Still, the aggressive style may galvanise opposition for the next big battle: the Senate reform.

The prime minister is taking good advantage of the low interest rates created by the European Central Bank and a still-weak economic recovery. If that lasts, he will stay strong. Perhaps, if Italy’s governments become stronger, there will also be stronger recoveries in the future.

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