ROME Italy took a step toward passing a long-awaited anti-corruption law on Wednesday amid a spate of scandals that have undermined the credibility of political parties just six months ahead of a national election.
To accelerate passage of the draft law, which has languished in parliament for two years, Prime Minister Mario Monti called a confidence vote, which curtails debate and ends voting on individual amendments.
The very parties being lambasted by a series of corruption probes voted 228 to 33 to pass the bill in the Senate. The legislation now requires approval in the Chamber of Deputies to become law.
"A serious law against corruption is a fundamental factor for Italian activities and international investment in order to unblock the country's growth," Monti told local government representatives at a conference in Bologna as voting took place.
Monti's unelected government is pushing hard to get the law passed quickly to shore up confidence in the political system and show that something is being done to stem graft.
In an economy of about 1.7 trillion euros, corruption siphons off 60 billion euros (48.7 billion pounds) a year out of the public coffers, according to the country's audit court, a body of magistrates which overlooks public finances.
Stories of extravagant corruption as Italians suffer in a deep recession have become a mainstay of the media.
For example, they have been reporting prosecutors' allegations that an official in the regional government of Lazio, which includes Rome, siphoned off millions of euros of public campaign financing to holiday in the French Riviera, dine on oysters and champagne at exclusive restaurants, and buy a BMW 4x4 when it snowed in the city.
FRAUD AND BRIBERY
Monti took over an unelected government in November to save Italy from a Greek-style debt debacle, replacing Silvio Berlusconi, himself on trial for paying for sex with an underage prostitute and corrupting a public official.
The latest polls show the scandals have boosted Genoese comic Beppe Grillo's populist 5-Star Movement. It has become the second-largest bloc behind the leading centre-left Democratic Party, relegating the once-dominant People of Liberty (PDL) party of Berlusconi to third place.
If the law was passed, anyone convicted of committing a crime against the public administration will be banned from running for public office.
It would also increase penalties for some forms of fraud and bribery, and introduce new crimes such as influence peddling.
The government last week unveiled legislation to create an anti-corruption commissioner with investigative powers, and announced constitutional changes to regain control over spending by regional governments that have been at the centre of many shocking cases.
Berlusconi's People of Liberty party has been the worst tarnished by the scandals.
The governor of the wealthy Lombardy region, from Berlusconi's party, was poised to call a vote three years before the end of his mandate after a member of his cabinet, another PDL politician, was arrested last week on suspicion of buying votes from the Calabrian mob.
(Reporting by Naomi O'Leary; Writing by Steve Scherer; Editing by Alison Williams)