ROME (Reuters) - Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi won the first of three confidence votes on a fiercely contested new electoral law on Wednesday, brushing aside opposition from rebels on his own side who walked out of parliament in protest.
The motion passed with 352 votes in favor and 207 against, with 38 members of his own center-left Democratic Party (PD), including some of the most senior members of the party old guard, refusing to cast a ballot.
But fears of a larger protest that could have threatened the government proved unfounded.
“I‘m satisfied, we’re in line with other confidence votes,” Institutional Reform Minister Maria Elena Boschi told reporters, noting that the vote was the second highest secured by the Renzi government since it came to power last year.
The bill allows party bosses to handpick the lead candidates on the ticket and assigns a heavy majority to the winning party or coalition with the aim of ensuring that a clear victor emerges from an election.
It has been furiously attacked by both opposition parties and PD dissidents who say it undermines democracy.
But Renzi called the bluff of the rebels, telling them voters would hold them responsible for a government crisis just as Italy’s economy is showing signs of improving and for early elections nearly three years ahead of schedule.
“If this does not pass, the government resigns,” he said in an open letter published in Wednesday’s La Stampa newspaper.
Two more confidence votes are due on Thursday on separate articles in the bill before a final secret vote on the entire measure next week.
If they all pass, the reform becomes law, ending more than a year of parliamentary debate, but if Renzi loses either of the confidence votes he would have to resign, forcing President Sergio Mattarella to try to appoint a new government or call early elections.
With a solid lead in the opinion polls and facing a weak and divided opposition, Renzi would be the overwhelming favorite to win any election called now.
The PD rebels include four prominent members of the former leadership he pushed to the sidelines since he took over the helm of the party in 2013 and consolidated his power when he became Italy’s youngest prime minister last year.
The law would not come into force until next year and complements a separate reform which will reduce the role of the upper house Senate as part of a broader shake-up of the whole parliamentary system.
Writing by Philip Pullella and James Mackenzie; Editing by Toby Chopra and Raissa Kasolowsky