Ciampi calls for safeguards in constitutional reform

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Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, Italy's politically neutral head of state, on Wednesday urged the government to ensure its far-reaching plans to reshape Italy's political system protect national unity and the powers of parliament.

It was the 83-year-old president's most direct intervention so far in an increasingly sharp dispute between the centre-right government and centre-left opposition over the ruling four-party coalition's constitutional proposals.

The reforms are aimed at strengthening the executive authority of Italy's prime minister, devolving certain powers from the state to the 20 Italian regions and changing the structure of the Senate, the upper house of parliament. If passed, they will constitute the biggest shake-up of the Italian political system since the restoration of democracy after 1945.

Speaking in the northern city of Piacenza, Mr Ciampi said the proposals would not damage Italy ?provided that it safeguards the principle of the national interest...and the fundamental institutional role of parliament, which is the expression of the Italian people's political will?. Mr Ciampi's comments echoed misgivings about the reforms expressed by the opposition and some in the centre-right majority. Their main concerns are that devolution would undermine the authority of Rome and that the increased powers of the premier would cut back the powerful role played by parliament over the past 50 years.

Forza Italia, the party of Silvio Berlusconi, the prime minister, and the regionalist Northern League, which wants more self-rule for northern Italy, have driven the reforms. Italy's regions would acquire extensive powers over education, healthcare and policing. The Senate would be transformed into a ?federal? legislative chamber. The coalition has patched up differences over the reforms and wants to push them through the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house, by October 8. Some centre-left politicians want a national convention to examine the proposals. If passed by the lower house, they would still have to go through three more legislative stages before being put to a referendum.

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