ROME, Aug. 8 (Xinhua) -- The Italian senate approved a constitutional reform draft bill on Friday, taking a crucial step towards a major political overhaul of the country.
Senators approved with 183 votes in favor and 4 abstentions the draft reform, which would provide a demotion of their own role as lawmakers among other major changes.
The law would also impact the way to elect the president of the Republic and the balance of power between the central government and regional assemblies.
The text has now to go before the Lower House, after the Parliament's summer break.
The constitutional draft is regarded as a crucial element of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's reform agenda. Yet, its approval did not come painlessly, and opposition Five Star Movement (M5S), Northern League, and left-wing SEL party refused to take part in the vote. The same did some senators belonging to centre-left ruling Democratic Party (PD) of Renzi.
All of them contested the reform, partly or wholly, because they say it would undermine the parliament and weaken its power to keep the government under control.
The reform draft aims at simplifying legislative procedures, cutting Italy's political machine and reducing political instability.
Under the current system, the two Houses are elected with different systems, which often made it difficult for one party to win a steady majority in both.
The utmost change would therefore involve the Upper House's role, putting an end to the system of "perfect bicameralism". The Senate would be stripped off its current equal legislative status with the Lower House and demoted into a non-elected assembly, which would lose its power to hold votes on no-confidence in the government, on budget and other major laws.
The seats will be reduced to 100 from the current 315, and future senators will be appointed by regional assemblies within their own members. As such, they would work in the Upper House at no extra cost.
The reform would strengthen the central power to the detriment of regional authorities. Italian regions would keep their competence to rule over their territory and infrastructures, school and health systems, education and training, but the central government would acquire exclusive control in fields that are now subjected also to regional authorities, such as energy, finance, major transport routes, and tax system.
The CNEL, an economic consultative body that is comprised of 64 representatives of workers, entrepreneurs and experts, would be abolished.
The reform would also change rules to elect Italy's president of the Republic. Qualified majorities of two-thirds and three-fifths will be required up to any of the first eight rounds of voting, whereas now it is up to the third round. From the ninth round on, a simple majority would suffice.
For the first time, the constitution would be amended to allow legislative referendum that gives citizens the right to propose new legislation. Rules regarding popular referendum, in order to repel an existing law, would also be changed.
The senate had begun discussing the reform draft on July 14 and a long and tense debate preceded Friday's final vote, with opposition groups initially submitting almost 8,000 amendments in order to delay the approval.
The filibuster put the cabinet under much pressure in July, and finally drove president of the Senate Pietro Grasso to cut short the debate and force through the first reading of the draft law by August 8, before the summer break.
As such, this first approval would come as a relief for the cabinet, as Renzi and several members of the cabinet had repeatedly declared a priority to have a first reading completed in the Senate before the parliament's recess.
"It was a crucial and challenging step, and we are all satisfied with the result. It is a first indication of our ability to meet our commitment to citizens asking for change," Minister for Reforms Maria Elena Boschi declared after the vote.
The Lower House will start discussing the text in September. As required for all laws aimed at amending Italy's constitution, the draft bill needs to be approved by each House twice and in identical form, after a pause of no less than three months.