By Angelo Amante and Gavin Jones
ROME (Reuters) - Italian lawmakers cheered a crushing referendum victory that will cut their numbers - safe in the knowledge that their parliamentary life will probably be extended by the reform.
This week about 70% of Italians backed slashing the number of parliamentary seats to 600 from 945, in a reform championed by the co-ruling anti-establishment 5-Star Movement.
Now constituency boundaries will have to be redrawn, a two-month-long process, and parliamentarians will think twice before triggering a new election.
"A smaller parliament is one with fewer places, so the current crop of lawmakers feel more threatened and will want to hang on to their seats," said Lorenzo Pregliasco, head of polling and political analysis firm YouTrend.
Maurizio Gasparri, a senator from Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia party who has been in parliament for 28 years, said lawmakers would seek any excuse "from a bad apricot harvest to the European soccer championships" to avoid an early ballot.
In addition, regional elections ended with the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) keeping three of the seven regions at stake, while Matteo Salvini's rightwing League stole just one, failing to deal the fatal blow to the coalition government Salvini had promised.
The chances of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte serving to the end of his mandate in 2023 appear to have risen significantly.
Spared constant worries about his government's survival, Conte can concentrate on trying to revive an economy brought to its knees by the COVID-19 crisis.
From 2021, Rome will get more than 200 billion euros ($234 billion) from the European Union's Recovery Fund designed to help the EU economies worst-hit by the coronavirus.
The ruling parties have every incentive to stick together to decide how to hand out the resources, reducing the risk of a new phase of political instability.
Analysts say the electoral changes brought about by the referendum will go beyond the redrawing of constituency boundaries.
Both the 5-Star and the PD have said they want to modify electoral rules to introduce a fully proportional system, a process that will require painstaking, drawn-out negotiations.
Former prime minister Matteo Renzi, who heads the Italia Viva party, a tiny but crucial part of the ruling majority, is already opposing talk of raising the voting threshold required for parties to win parliamentary seats.
Yet another obstacle to an early vote is a constitutional rule barring the president from dissolving parliament in the last six months of his mandate, which in President Sergio Mattarella's case means from end-July, early-August 2021.
"I think the only space for an early election is now a very narrow window between January and June 2021," Pregliasco said.
Salvini's declining fortunes offer further reassurance to Conte. After eight straight regional election victories in 2018 and 2019, the anti-immigrant politician appears to be losing his allure for many Italians.
The League remains Italy's most popular party, but polls suggest it has lost around 9 points since it won 34% of the vote at European elections in May.
A similar fall in Salvini's personal approval ratings have prompted talk of a challenge to his party leadership from Luca Zaia, the popular head of the northern Veneto region.
In the regional election Zaia won 77% of the vote and his personal list of candidates got 45%. The League's official party list took just 17%.
(Additional reporting by Giselda Vagnoni; Editing by Janet Lawrence)