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National Agenda : Italy's Chaotic Electoral System Confronting the Executioner : Reformer Mario Segni has fathered referendums to scrap five decades of proportional representation and end 'tyranny of corruption and inefficiency.'


ROME — After nearly half a century of splintered parliaments, weak coalitions and short-lived governments, Italy's electoral system is under sentence of death.

The Supreme Court has cleared the way for a national referendum this spring that would scrap proportional representation and replace it with simple majority, winner-take-all elections for Parliament, as in the United States or Britain.

That would change not only the face of the Italian legislature, but also the structure of government and--hopefully--its efficiency. It may also make 1993 the most unpredictable, and most potentially explosive, political year in postwar Italy.

Nine other court-sanctioned referendums on the same ballot would repaint other major parts of the national political and economic landscape: ending public financing for political parties, abolishing some ministries and restricting the central government's role in industry and finance.

Mario Segni, the mild-mannered but persistent centrist reformer who is the father of the electoral referendums, says they are necessary to end a "tyranny of corruption and inefficiency" fostered by a fraternity of political parties wed to a system that enabled them to maintain a profitable status quo.

"The current system is in its death throes," Segni, the 53-year-old son of a former Italian president, told the Turin daily La Stampa.

A maverick member of the Christian Democrats, who have dominated Italy's 51 governments since World War II, Segni heads a nonpartisan movement whose goal is to reform Italian politics by scrapping the nation's outmoded electoral system.

Responding to Segni's polite call for radical change, more than a million Italians of every political stripe signed petitions for the first two of the 10 referendums, which call for direct elections of Parliament and of mayors.

Segni's idea of revolution by referendum quickly attracted other sponsors for other issues, until 13 national questions came under the referendum hammer as a result of popular protest. The court ruled three of them unconstitutional, leaving 10.

Among them, electoral reform and a proposal by the small Radical Party to withdraw state funding from political parties are most incendiary. Victory for them would overturn a disgraced political Establishment that has lost public confidence.

Italy's arrogant and power-drunk parties have become objects of national ridicule amid judicial revelations of massive corruption so longstanding it had become institutionalized.

In writing a new republican constitution after World War II, Italy sought to atone for a dictatorial fascist past by becoming resolutely democratic. Ever since, both houses of Parliament have been filled on a proportional system of representation: A party that gets 1% of the vote gets 1% of the seats. That, as intended, has meant that no single party has ever been able to approach the stranglehold that Benito Mussolini's Fascists once enjoyed.

But it has also meant that no one party has won enough votes to be able to rule decisively. Italy is the only postwar Western European democracy in which there has never been an alternation of power: The Christian Democrats have dominated all 51 governments.

All have been weak, including the current four-party coalition headed by Socialist Prime Minister Giuliano Amato, which survived a no-confidence vote last week but will not likely survive the referendum aftermath.

Before then, legislative electoral reform could short-circuit the referendums, but Parliament, true to its roots, is thus far bogged down in narrow infighting among members of 16 different parties--atavistic far right to the archaic far left.

Of the 16 parties, only three got more than 10% in national elections last year. Many of them would vanish from any Parliament elected under a reformed system, which is why opposite ends of the spectrum, the neo-fascists and hard-line Marxists--both of which got 5%--have joined other small parties in opposition to the reform.

"The referendum will shake the foundations of the political system as much as the 1946 vote in which Italy narrowly decided to replace the monarchy with a republic," said Fabio Luca Cavazza, a retired publisher who is treasurer of the Popular Reform Movement that Segni heads.

While major Italian parties are persuaded of the need for electoral reform, there is no consensus about its nature. Reformers' aspirations are necessarily conditioned by the Italian constitution, which allows referendums only for the abolition--not the making--of laws.

One option for direct elections, Cavazza says, would be the British (or American) system in which legislators vie for election in a district and the one with the most votes wins. As in Britain, the prime minister would be the legislator who leads the winning party. That system would push Italy toward a two-party system and is probably too much of a break with the current practice of voting for parties instead of people.

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