'King' Berlusconi plans prime ministerial revolution

John Hooper in Rome
Thursday September 18, 2003
The Guardian

Silvio Berlusconi's government has proposed a sweeping reform of the Italian constitution, prompting some opposition MPs to claim he is grabbing "monarchical" powers for himself.
The reform plan approved late on Tuesday proposes, among other things, considerably enhanced powers for the prime minister including, in effect, the power to dissolve parliament. Moreover, it suggests that the name of each party's candidate for the premiership should be put on the ballot slips in a general election, and the successful candidate should take up the post without the formal approval of parliament.

The Communists urged other opposition parties to oppose the plan yesterday. But the Democratic Left, the biggest opposition party, took a more conciliatory line.

The reforms, which Mr Berlusconi hopes to have on the statute book next year, tackle several widely criticised aspects of Italy's political system. The two chambers of parliament will cease to have equal weight: a provision which makes for endless to-ing and fro-ing between the lower chamber of deputies, and the senate. Prime ministers will no longer be able to survive a lost vote of confidence. The plan aims to foster the de-politicisation of the judiciary by barring judges of the constitutional court from entering party politics for five years after their term ends.

It also rewards Umberto Bossi's Northern League, one of Mr Berlusconi's coalition partners, with a substantial measure of devolution.

The regional administrations, which at present count for little, are given control of schooling, health and local police: a departure from tradition in a country where power has tended to lie either in the capital or in the towns and cities. Rome is offered a special status that would make it a kind of federal district.

The plan proposes that the chamber of deputies should deal with legislation applying to the country as a whole.

The senate, chosen on a regional basis, should deal with areas in which state powers overlap with those of other authorities.

The president's powers are to be trimmed. Mr Berlusconi has had tense relations with current and previous heads of state. Earlier this month, in what was apparently intended as a pre-emptive strike, President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi lauded the existing constitution.

Future heads of state will retain a nominal power to dissolve parliament, but the real decision will be in the hands of the prime minister, the plan proposes. Since the prime minister will in effect be directly elected, the president will no longer appoint him.

The Refounded Communist party's statement said that transferring the power to dis solve parliament would be tantamount to handing Mr Berlusconi an "atomic bomb". It urged other parties of the left to oppose the prime minister's "monarchical inclinations".

Luciano Violante, parliamentary leader of the Democratic Left, said the scheme was marred by "incongruities, omissions and contradictions".

But he signalled a readiness to negotiate, and one of his party's leading constitutional experts, Augusto Barbera, said the government had tabled some "positive innovations".