One Man's Monkey Wrench Disrupts Italy's Political Machine

Rewriting a country's Constitution is no small task, but in the Byzantine arena of Italian politics, it's proving virtually impossible.

Four months of hard work by 70 members of Parliament to amend Italy's Constitution and pave the way for greater political stability went up in smoke earlier this month - the result of an unforeseen move by Umberto Bossi, secessionist leader of the Northern League.

In a play as convoluted as Italian politics itself, Mr. Bossi - who refused to set foot in the committee during the months it hammered out the reforms - cast his party's critical six votes in favor of a "semipresidential" form of government, which political experts say will never make it through Parliament.

A semipresidential government, based on the French system, would have a directly elected head of state backed by a parliamentary majority. For such a model to work, Italy would have to complete its evolution into a two-party system.

This can be accomplished only if the smaller political parties agree to self-annihilation by voting in a new electoral law that would eliminate proportional representation. Currently, one-fourth of the 630 members of the House are elected on a proportional basis.

"This is a very ugly affair. None of us are suicidal, we're just not going to let it happen," said Fausto Bertinotti, the leader of Communist Refoundation, which won 9 percent of the vote in last year's elections.

The alternative favored by the leftist ruling Olive Tree coalition was that of a strong premiership, patterned after Britain, that allowed some degree of proportional representation.

The semipresidential model won by five votes, thanks to the Northern League.

Bossi's paradoxical move - a two-party system would blow the Northern League, which has a 10 percent backing, right out of Parliament - was seen as a masterful coup by a supremely skilled politician seeking to disrupt progress toward political stability.

"Bossi needs the country's ills to fan the flames of separatism and keep himself and his movement afloat," Italy's leading financial daily, Il Sole 24 Ore, noted in a searing editorial. "In a primitive but astute move, Bossi called on his troops to throw a monkey wrench into the committee's work."

Bossi was visibly pleased, likening himself to Evander Holyfield winning a boxing match against Mike Tyson. "I showed them they can't make a fool out of me," he said in Milan, adding that both models of government were the product of "corrupt back-room dealing."

"Four months of work for nothing," said one member of Partito Democratico delle Sinistre, Italy's largest party, minutes after the vote. "Four months, and then Bossi shows up and it's all over."

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