Italy PM Meloni ‘mother of all reforms’ secures senate approval for direct elections

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An ambitious overhaul of the Italian constitution to allow for the direct election of a prime minister won the Senate’s approval on Tuesday, the start of what is likely to be an uncertain path to the statute books.

Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has pushed hard for the change, calling it “the mother of all reforms”, but it faces determined resistance from opposition parties and will almost assuredly need to be put to a referendum.

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Under the proposal, the prime minister would be elected for five years and the coalition supporting the winning candidate will be given at least 55% of seats, to make sure it has a workable majority in both houses of parliament.

Meloni’s right-wing coalition says the new law will help end chronic political instability in Italy, which has had almost 70 governments since World War Two, and make the nation more democratic in the process.

Critics say the bill could trigger chaos, with voters able to back one person to be prime minister, while picking lawmakers from another party. Israel in the 1990s was the only country to ever try such a system, but had to ditch it because it failed to bring the promised solidity.

Former Prime Minister Mario Monti told the Senate that the bill would strip Italy of the ability to respond nimbly to severe crises - as happened in 2011 when he was asked by the then president to take charge during a financial crisis.

“The reform will no longer allow the degrees of flexibility in the system that have sometimes proven useful in emergencies in Italy,” he said.

Repeated attempts to produce a more robust system in Italy have always foundered amid myriad visions and, given the steps needed, there is no guarantee this bill will ever become law.

Any change to the constitution must be approved by both houses of parliament twice, with a two-thirds majority necessary for the final two votes. Failing that, a referendum has to be held, but these often fall flat, as happened in a 2016 bid.

Tuesday’s vote in the Senate was won by 109 votes to 77.

“This reform is fundamental for us. It strengthens democracy and freedom against any totalitarian and extremist temptations,” said Maurizio Gasparri, a senator with the ruling Forza Italia party, which tried but failed to rewrite the constitution in 2006.

Meloni has promised to campaign hard for the change, saying technocratic governments should no longer be imposed on the country -- as happened during the COVID crisis in 2021 when former European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi became premier.

However, she has said she would not resign if she lost an eventual referendum, which is likely to be held in 2025.

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