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POLITICS

Renzi victory as Senate votes to fall on its sword

UPDATED: Italy's Senate voted on Tuesday to relinquish most of its power in a revolutionary move aimed at ending decades of political instability, to the delight of a triumphant Premier Matteo Renzi.

Renzi victory as Senate votes to fall on its sword
Premier Matteo Renzi thanked those who "continue to pursue the dream of a simpler and stronger Italy". Photo: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP

“The long history of inconclusive politics is over. Reforms are being carried out, Italy is changing. Onwards!” the prime minister said on Facebook, as senators greenlit the biggest change to the constitution since its inception.

Senators voted 179 in favour and 16 against the reform which will cut their numbers from 315 to 100 and effectively end their ability to bring down governments – a safeguard put in place after World War II to prevent the return of Fascism.

“Thank you to all those who continue to persue the dream of a simpler and stronger Italy,” Renzi said on Twitter.

The youthful Renzi has made streamlining the country's governance by taming parliament's second chamber – which currently has the powers to delay and block legislation –a keystone of his mandate.
   
The reform still has to go before the lower house and back to the Senate once more before being put to a general referendum expected in mid-2016 – but it is expected to pass all hurdles easily.
 
 “It's a great victory for Matteo Renzi… it will show Italy and Europe that he is able to reform an irreformable country,” Roberto D'Alimonte, political science professor at Rome's Luiss University, told AFP.
   
“The reform will simplify the formation of governments, the passing of laws, reduce the power of lobbies and make parliament more accountable,” he said, as Italy's newspapers dubbed the day “Super Tuesday”.

Under the current system, the two branches of government have equal weight. Transforming the Senate into a small chamber of regional lawmakers would stop bills getting bogged down in a back-and-forth between the chambers.

It would also bring an end to the political musical chairs that has produced 63 different administrations since 1946.

“It will be a change no government before him has been able to carry out,” said Sergio Fabbrini, director of the Luiss School of Government, noting that the first commission to reform the bicameral system was set up in 1983.

Italy is currently the only European country, apart from Romania, in which the government needs to get votes of confidence in both chambers.

Celebrating

Tuesday's victory is a boost for Renzi, who is keen to refocus attention on Italy's economy following a period of party infighting and a corruption scandal which forced Rome's mayor, a member of his Democratic Party, to resign.

The country, which pulled out of a three-year recession at the start of the year, has been enjoying a balmy period of recovery, with the unemployment rate falling in August to a two-year low of 11.9 percent.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) last week said Italy was experiencing “stronger than expected growth” and revised up its GDP estimates to a 0.8 percent expansion in 2015 and 1.3 percent in 2016.
   
The ambitious Renzi, 40, says his reforms are the reason — in particular a package to shake up the labour market that was welcomed by the business world but bitterly denounced by Italy's once-powerful trade unions.

Next on his list is transforming Italy's snail-paced judicial system and schools.

As well as being a feather in his cap, the reforms are key to persuading the European Union to give Renzi the budgetary leeway he wants to be able to boost domestic demand through tax cuts and investment schemes.

Italy's draft 2016 budget will go before the EU on Thursday and this Senate success will doubtless strengthen its case.

Critics largely from the anti-establishment Five Star party and right wing have complained that the Senate reform will give ambitious Renzi authoritarian powers.

Former premier Silvio Berlusconi said this weekend it was a “dangerous system, with only one man in power” – but D'Alimonte dismissed such concerns as “baloney”.

Franco Pavoncello, John Cabot University's political science expert, agrees: “The system had become absolutely unmanageable. This was a reform everyone wanted, but some tried to block simply to create problems for Renzi.”

Parliamentary expert Dino Martirano in the Corriere della Sera daily said: “Renzi will be already be able to celebrate from this evening, because the road… appears to be all downhill from here.”

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ITALIAN POLITICS

Italian government rocked by Five Star party split

Italy’s government was plunged into turmoil on Tuesday as foreign minister Luigi Di Maio announced he was leaving his party to start a breakaway group.

Italian government rocked by Five Star party split

Di Maio said his decision to leave the Five Star Movement (M5S) – the party he once led – was due to its “ambiguity” over Italy’s support of Ukraine following Russia’s invasion.

He accused the party’s current leader, former prime minister Giuseppe Conte, of undermining the coalition government’s efforts to support Ukraine and weakening Italy’s position within the EU.

“Today’s is a difficult decision I never imagined I would have to take … but today I and lots of other colleagues and friends are leaving the Five Star Movement,” Di Maio told a press conference on Tuesday.

“We are leaving what tomorrow will no longer be the first political force in parliament.”

His announcement came after months of tensions within the party, which has lost most of the popular support that propelled it to power in 2018 and risks being wiped out in national elections due next year.

The split threatens to bring instability to Draghi’s multi-party government, formed in February 2021 after a political crisis toppled the previous coalition.

As many as 60 former Five Star lawmakers have already signed up to Di Maio’s new group, “Together for the Future”, media reports said.

Di Maio played a key role in the rise of the once anti-establishment M5S, but as Italy’s chief diplomat he has embraced Draghi’s more pro-European views.

READ ALSO: How the rebel Five Star Movement joined Italy’s establishment

Despite Italy’s long-standing political and economic ties with Russia, Draghi’s government has taken a strongly pro-NATO stance, sending weapons and cash to help Ukraine while supporting EU sanctions against Russia.

Di Maio backed the premier’s strong support for Ukraine following Russia’s invasion, including sending weapons for Kyiv to defend itself.

In this he has clashed with the head of Five Star, former premier Giuseppe Conte, who argues that Italy should focus on a diplomatic solution.

Di Maio attacked his former party without naming Conte, saying: “In these months, the main political force in parliament had the duty to support the diplomacy of the government and avoid ambiguity. But this was not the case,” he said.

Luigi Di Maio (R) applauds after Prime Minister Mario Draghi (L) addresses the Italian Senate on June 21st, 2022. Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP

“In this historic moment, support of European and Atlanticist values cannot be a mistake,” he added.

The Five Star Movement, he said, had risked the stability of the government “just to try to regain a few percentage points, without even succeeding”.

But a majority of lawmakers – including from the Five Star Movement – backed Draghi’s approach in March and again in a Senate vote on Tuesday.

Draghi earlier on Tuesday made clear his course was set.

“Italy will continue to work with the European Union and with our G7 partners to support Ukraine, to seek peace, to overcome this crisis,” he told the Senate, with Di Maio at his side.

“This is the mandate the government has received from parliament, from you. This is the guide for our action.”

The Five Star Movement stormed to power in 2018 general elections after winning a third of the vote on an anti-establishment ticket, and stayed in office even after Draghi was parachuted in to lead Italy in February 2021.

But while it once threatened to upend the political order in Italy, defections, policy U-turns and dismal polling have left it struggling for relevance.

“Today ends the story of the Five Star Movement,” tweeted former premier Matteo Renzi, who brought down the last Conte government by withdrawing his support.

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