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Italian Senate Votes to Overhaul Constitution

Italy’s senate has passed a controversial bill that could lead to a major overhaul of the country’s constitution. Critics already say the planned changes would give disproportionate powers to the prime minister.

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Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi has been a major backer of the reform

The bill has been pushed through parliament by the influential Northern League party, a key member of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's center-right coalition. The vote in the senate was 170 to 132 in favor, with three abstentions.

The reform, the first in 60 years, would strengthen the role of the prime minister, cut the number of parliamentarians in both houses and devolve more powers to Italy’s 20 regions.

The vote seals a pact between ruling Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and his partners in the small but influential Northern League. The right-wing party's leader, Umberto Bossi, who suffered a stroke in March 2004, came to Rome from his Lombardy base for a triumphant evening for his party.

The League has several times threatened to pull out of the government when it felt its partners were dragging their feet on devolution, the cause closest to the heart of Bossi's once-secessionist party.

However, since the proposed changes will not come into effect before the next general election, due next April, they could still be voted down in a possible referendum.

“We will call on the public to vote against these changes, because contrary to what the government is saying, this is not a reform," said Pierro Fassino, the leader of the opposition party Democrats of the Left. "It's an attempt to deform the country’s democratic structures.”

More power to regions

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi insists that the reform would help to make Italy’s governmental system more effective by granting the regions full autonomy on decisions of health, schooling and policing.

Italien erhält neue Verfassung

The Italian Senate debates the constitutional reform

The upper house of parliament, the Senate, would become a federal legislative body while the prime minister would be able to hire and fire ministers and to dissolve parliament. Observers say that would put an end to a typical Italian practice of parties switching allegiances in mid-term, often bringing down the government in the process.

While Berlusconi claims that the law is the centerpiece of the government’s comprehensive reform plans that will lead to a more streamlined government, others are shocked at what they see as blatant attempts by the leadership to introduce “prime ministerial dictatorship,” as Romano Prodi, the opposition leader and challenger to Berlusconi, put it.

“I’m deeply ashamed and bitter about the decision. What we are effectively witnessing is the burial of constitution. The people who are behind this know exactly what they are doing,” said former President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro.

Promotes division?

Parmalat Fabrik bei Parma in Italien

Parma, northern Italy

Opponents of the reform say the measures it contains will simply confirm the wealth gap between the rich industrial northern regions -- the heartland of Bossi's party -- and the under-developed south.

"This reform undermines social cohesion and reduces the ability to govern the country. What Bossi has obtained is not devolution, but dissolution," said Antonio di Pietro, a former anti-corruption magistrate who now heads the small Italy of Values opposition party.

Meanwhile, in a further political development, this time on a local level, the city council of Turin voted to ban Coca-Cola products from its offices. This comes just three months before the 2006 Winter Games in Turin where Coca Cola is one of the main sponsors. City council officials said the measure was pushed through by communist deputies who accuse the company of abusing its workers in South America.

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