Early elections on cards quench flames of gov't crisis in Italy

2012-11-17 13:49:59 GMT2012-11-17 21:49:59(Beijing Time)  Xinhua English

by Marzia De Giuli

ROME, Nov. 17 (Xinhua) -- A Friday of meetings produced an agreement on the need to avoid a traumatic end to the present Italian legislature, which would jeopardize the reforms carried out so far by Primer Minister Mario Monti's emergency government to put a lid on the debt crisis.

Italians are set to cast their ballots in national elections next April at a time that the eurozone's third-largest economy has contracted for a fifth consecutive quarter, despite the Monti technocratic cabinet being credited with restoring market confidence in the debt-ridden country.

One year after the economist and former European commissioner took office in the midst of a spiraling debt crisis on Nov. 16, 2011, President Giorgio Napolitano reckoned the deadlock over timing can be broken with an "election day" combining regional votes in Lazio, Molise and Lombardy with the national vote.

In a statement released at the end of a day of intense political meetings, Napolitano said that early, if only slightly, election cannot be ruled out, "but approval of the stability budget and the election law must be an essential condition."

Earlier this week, the government's announcement of possible separation of regional and national elections had ignited a political firestorm, with center-right party led by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, the People's of Freedom Party (PdL) threatening to bring up the Monti government.

After a series of corruption scandals hit the PdL in Lazio and Lombardy, the two most important regions of Italy, opinion polls have shown that center-left Democratic Party (PD) remains the favorite for the next vote, followed by comedian Beppe Grillo's anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S).

In the Sicilian regional election last month, only 47 percent of the electorate went to vote, compared to just under 60 percent in 2008.

"Berlusconi's party fears that the regional vote could be a bloodbath," said Mariolina Sesto, a political commentator at leading financial newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore.

"And should the general elections be held a month or two later, this for a sort of dragging effect could lead to a significant reduction of the PdL weight in parliament, handing a net victory to the PD," she added.

The option of a single election day, which is likely to produce a legislature without a strong majority, was also supported by centrist Union of the Center party (UDC) led by Pier Ferdinando Casini.

Surveys say the PD would not reach the necessary percentage to have a ruling majority outlined by the proposed electoral reform bill currently before parliament if it is passed.

Under the rule, if the votes in favor of the leading alliance reach 42.5 percent, an additional percentage would be granted to achieve a 55-percent majority, and in the case of a PD coalition with the UDC, the two together could surpass 40 percent, analysts said.

A parliament without a strong majority is also eyed by Monti supporters. Business communities aim at persuading the current prime minister, who said he will not run in the elections, to accept a second mandate to avoid that a legislature unable to solidify a majority throws Italy into deeper financial turmoil.

Italy, though its borrowing costs have come down and stabilized over the last year, has remained key to the eurozone's survival and cannot run the risk of falling victim to the European debt crisis.

According to economists, Europe has the resources to bail out smaller eurozone economies if necessary, but has neither the capacity to bail out Italy nor a strategy for the single currency to survive if the Mediterranean country was forced to leave.

In this complicate jigsaw puzzle, an earlier election day appears to be a painless exit strategy, said Massimo Franco, a political columnist and author of Corriere della Sera, the largest circulation newspaper in Italy.

"It would not be easy to explain to Europe, financial markets and the Italian public opinion a crisis of the Monti government derived from a dispute on the election date in three regions overwhelmed by scandals," he noted.

"The attempt made over the last 12 months to patiently build a different trend based on Italy's predictability and reliability would go completely lost," he said.

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