All It Takes is a “Yes”? Italy’s Referendum on Historic Constitutional Reform

As the Italian referendum is drawing near, Hertie student Valentina Caracci weighs in on the direct and indirect implications and consequences of Sunday’s vote, whichever the result may be, on political institutions and good governance in Italy.

2016 hasn’t been the best year for wisdom at the ballot box. Whether it was Brexit, Colombia’s rejection of the peace deal with FARC rebels, or the U.S. presidential election, all around the world, voters have acted out furiously and irrationally in contradictory and unpredictable ways. Democracy, and particularly the populist brand we’ve recently had, has become alarming for many. In Europe, the trauma caused by Brexit is still an open wound. The word “referendum” has now surpassed TTIP in the ranking of most controversial words of the year. There hasn’t been another recent point in time in which the sacrosanct principle of ‘giving the sovereign people a voice’ has shown such potential to turn into a populist nightmare.

It is in this disquieting atmosphere that Italian voters head to the polls on December 4th. On the ballot, a measure proposing to change 47 articles of the Italian Constitution (around a third of the overall document) in what would be the country’s most substantial constitutional reform since the birth of the Italian Republic in 1946. Voters choosing “yes” show support for the reform, while those who choose “no” wish to see it rejected.

The reform touches upon three areas. The first and most controversial change involves a substantial decrease in the Senate’s powers and restructures the manner in which its members are elected. As it stands, the Senate, one of the two chambers of Italy’s bicameral legislature, is made up of 320 members, 315 of which are elected by direct suffrage. The two chambers, the other being the Chamber of Deputies, essentially carry out the same functions: they issue votes of confidence in the government and both take part in the legislative process. The original rationale of “perfect bicameralism” was to ensure a strong check against authoritarianism but today is seen as an outmoded system that makes the legislative process irrationally slow, intricate, and gridlocked.

If the reform passes, the new Senate will consist of only 100 senators selected by representatives of the territorial institutions (regional counsellors and mayors). Senators will not receive a second salary any longer since they are already receiving a regional stipend. The new Senate will keep its legislative power only in a limited number of areas including constitutional reforms, referenda, local and regional issues and European level policies. The resulting Senate would essentially become an institutional connection between the State, the country’s regions and municipalities, and the EU. Many supporters of the reform stress that the costs of maintaining Italy’s political institutions will be reduced, though, in the grand scope of Italy’s current budget predicament these claims are somewhat overblown. What remains important though, is the simplification of the legislative process and the restoration of direly needed institutional credibility.

The second change concerns the division of responsibilities between the national state and regions. The reform will eliminate the so-called ‘concurrent subjects’, i.e. the areas where responsibilities of both the national government and regions overlap and reassign those areas of responsibility to one or the other body. This has led to many appeals to the constitutional courts (particularly by regions), to determinate which body should handle which specific issue area, translating into further inaction and confusion.

The final changes pertain to somewhat less controversial areas; namely, the elimination of provinces (there is a high level of consent about their uselessness) and the suppression of the National Council of Economy and Labor, an advisory organ that long ago lost its relevance.

It is an established fact that Italy’s current structure of government demands simplification and streamlining. However, that hasn’t stopped average citizens and political parties from hotly debating reform. In the beginning of negotiations in 2014, not a single member of the parliament voted against the draft law – glaring proof of reform’s unanimous popularity among Italian politicians. However, in February 2015, Berlusconi’s right-leaning “Forza Italia” party withdrew support, despite being a long-time advocate of such constitutional reform. Eventually, the final legislative text was approved by 64% of members of the Parliament on 21 January this year. Still a high level of consent, but just short of the 2/3 threshold, required to make the reform pass and bypass the referendum.

In addition to the (late and sudden) dissent, the referendum also faces the problem of being viewed as a vote of confidence in Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. Renzi himself is surely partly responsible for this as he has promised to resign if “no” wins. While this is certainly a noble intention it has led to an undesired consequence: voters are probably going to vote for or against the Prime Minister, and not for or against the reform. And since Italy, just as Britain, the whole EU, the U.S. and Colombia, is currently facing a phase of social discontent and political anger, the victory of “no” is, as polls are now showing, increasingly likely. (Hopefully, the polls are wrong this time too!)

The Italian reform constitution is not perfect nor does it claim to be. Politics necessitates trade-offs; in the trade-off between efficiency and checks against authoritarianism this reform puts effectiveness first. Could the reform – combined with the current electoral law (the so-called Italicum) – lead to a shift toward authoritarianism by giving the Prime Minister too much power? The outcome isn’t likely. There are two implicit countermeasures to excessive concentration of power: one is the preventive control of electoral law by the Constitutional Court and the second is the composition of the new Senate, which will not necessarily mirror the current composition of the Chamber of Deputies. The Senate will thus be able to impede possible abuse by the other bodies of government in areas that fall under its authority, constitutional laws being among those.

All it takes is a yes? Well, not exactly. A simple “Yes” vote won’t single-handedly change Italy. It is, however, a necessary step toward the legitimisation and reform of Italian governance. It’s needed to finally let Italy leave its current form of absurd bicameralism (which has no counterpart in Europe) and do away with its cumbersome and confused regionalism. As one public appeal for “yes” signed by a collection of major Italian cultural figures states: “A ‘no’ would put a gravestone on any possibility of change for years; years that will pass quickly and be crucial; years in which the world will go ahead through paths that we will not be able to follow if we stay buried in the status quo”.

Valentina Caracci is a class of 2018 Master of International Affairs at the Hertie vcaracci_portraitSchool of Governance. She holds a Bachelor in International and European Studies at the University of Milan and studied at the Arctic University of Norway. She has participated in several volunteering projects around Europe and has worked passionately for the social integration of the Rom community in Milan. Her interests include constitutional law, economic policy and the challenges of European integration.