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Financial Times

Italy's judicial reform bill hits trouble



The centre-right Italian government's efforts to pass a controversial bill on judicial reform are running into unexpected trouble after some pro-government members of parliament cast votes on behalf of absent colleagues to push the bill through. Opposition deputies in the Senate, or upper house of parliament, say the Senate's adoption of the bill last Thursday should be declared invalid because it is possible the chamber would have lacked a quorum without the casting of irregular votes.
The legislation, known as the Cirami bill, would allow defendants to ask for their cases to be moved to different courts if there are grounds for suspicion that their trial judges are biased against them.
Italy's centre-left opposition views the bill as tailor-made for Silvio Berlusconi, the prime minister, and Cesare Previti, a close aide, who have been on trial in Milan on charges that they bribed judges in the 1980s. Mr Berlusconi, Mr Previti and their supporters say leftwing magistrates in Milan are conducting a political vendetta against them.
The Senate vote embarrassed the government because at least two dozen senators were caught on video pressing electronic voting buttons that belonged to absent colleagues. But the quality of Italian parliamentary politics in general was placed in question when it emerged that the problem of "pianists", or legislators who "play a tune" on behalf of their colleagues, is nothing new.
"The phenomenon of 'pianists' is a bad, deplorable habit which affects all the parliamentary groups," said Clemente Mastella, a centrist opposition deputy. "This time, however, it has overstepped all limits." Marcello Pera, the Senate speaker, ruled that the vote had taken place legally but at least one prominent politician from a government party made clear his doubts. "The spectacle offered by the 'pianists' in the Senate was, to say the least, painful," said Marco Follini, leader of the Christian Democratic Centre (CCD). "I hope that those on our side who voted on behalf of their colleagues say they are sorry. If they don't, I'm saying sorry for them."
By creating distance between the CCD and other parties in Mr Berlusconi's government, Mr Follini's apology may add more mistrust to the complex political relationships inside the ruling coalition.
Mr Follini and his colleagues were outraged recently when Umberto Bossi, leader of the populist Northern League, called the Christian Democrats, who once dominated Italian governments, "thieves".
Mr Berlusconi had to calm the situation by declaring the ex-Christian Democrats in his government were indispensable to his coalition.
The future of the Cirami bill, meanwhile, remains uncertain. The Senate's version of the bill was slightly different from that passed earlier this month by the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of parliament. The Senate's version will therefore return to the Chamber, where a final vote is expected in November. However, the uproar over the circumstances of the Senate vote means that a legal challenge to the bill cannot be ruled out.

Tony Barber

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