by Eric J. Lyman
ROME, April 9 (Xinhua) -- In order to take a step forward with his reform-minded agenda, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is looking to take a big -- and potentially risky -- step back, local analysts say.
Renzi became the prime minister in February promising a wide array of reforms, ranging from the countries pension and tax systems to sparking economic growth while still reducing government debt. But no single reform attracted as much attention as Renzi's plan to dramatically remake the country's legislature.
According to Renzi aides, the plan involves reducing the size, budget, and power of the country's senate so that it more closely resembles the kind of consultative body made up of noteworthy leaders in commerce, the arts, science, or other areas envisioned in Italy's 1946 constitution.
That legacy remains in the form of a handful of senators for life in the body, but Renzi's plan would dramatically reshape it, removing almost all the current senators and allowing the president to appoint fewer than two-dozen members from various fields, with the rest of the body made up of local and regional government officials.
The new members would most likely serve as volunteers, saving millions in costs. And by reducing the Senate's power it would make it easier to pass legislation while making future governments more stable. It would also make good on Renzi's most high-profile promise, something pollsters say will give him more credibility as he pushes for subsequent reforms.
Renzi believes in the plan so much that last week he issued a threat: "Either the Senate reform goes through," he said. "Or I go."
According to analysts, that could prove to be a high-risk game. According to Federico Castoria, president of the think tank Cultura Democratica, Renzi could be banking on the reform to show he has backing he would have had had he been elected (Renzi was appointed to the position after a back-room power struggle that ousted predecessor Enrico Letta). But it also involves a lot of risk because it could prove the opposite if the maneuver fails.
"There's no doubt it's a big risk, and one motivated in part by political factors," Castoria told Xinhua. "If the goal is to save money, reduce the size of the legislature, and increase political stability he could just reduce salaries and the number of seats in both parliamentary bodies and the whole thing would be a lot less controversial."
Federico Niglia, history and international relations expert with LUISS University in Rome, agreed.
"It's symbolic; it shows Renzi is committed to the reforms," Niglia told Xinhua. "But there's not a clear game plan for Renzi if he doesn't get his way."
Castoria, Niglia, and others say the biggest obstacle to the reform will probably be the Senate itself: a reform of this kind will require approval from both houses of parliament, meaning senators will be asked to vote themselves out of a prestigious and high-paying job. It seems a difficult task for a body that has not been able to push through more meager reforms to reduce benefits or salary.
"The argument would have to try to convince lawmakers to put the public good ahead of their own benefits," Niglia said.
That notion may helped at least in part by the fact that the plan is gaining support from the general public: while still supported by fewer than 50 percent of respondents, the polling firm Opinioni reports support for the Senate reform proposal is slowly but steadily gaining approval from the public.
"The more the plan is accepted by the public the less risky it is for Renzi," Opinioni co-director Maria Rossi told Xinhua.