The Renzi referendum
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The Renzi referendum

Wed 07 Sep 2016 3:31 PM

Scotland voted to stay in 2014. The United Kingdom voted to leave in 2016. Referendums seem to be in the air in Europe, but Italy’s upcoming constitutional referendum is being touted as the greatest threat yet to the stability of Europe.

Introduced by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, carrying an October or November deadline, the constitutional referendum is set to potentially change the structure of Italy’s political system. The reforms included in the constitutional referendum seek to simplify and streamline the legislative process.


Corruption, instability and legislative sloth have become commonplace in Italian politics. No government has stood a full term since World War II. Scandals like Tangentopoli and the Mani pulite investigations have plagued Italy for decades. Political gridlock has become all too familiar.

Italy’s current legislative system is the world’s only example of a perfectly symmetrical bicameral legislature. While they differ in size, the Chamber of Deputies (630 members) and the Senate of the Republic (315 members) share mostly the same legislative powers, electorate and electoral laws and procedures, meaning their responsibilities almost completely overlap. The system was designed in the wake of the World War II. Italy, rocked by the fallen Fascist regime and wary of Soviet-aligned parties, created a system that would limit the risk of extremist parties having an adverse effect on government.

But the “perfect” bicameral nature of the system has been blamed for much of the legislative stagnation. Since each house must pass the same version of every bill, attempts at law-making are frequently caught up in navetta parlamentare, or parliamentary shuffle, which sees bills being endlessly amended by one house only to be sent back and forth between the two, modified again each time. The system is more like a political veto power than a constructive legislative check.

The reforms put forward by Renzi seek to break Italy free from a pattern of political inefficiency. They introduce time limits for discussion of a bill and grant Italy’s Supreme Court, the Corte Costituzionale, review of electoral laws.

The main reforms, however, are changes to the composition and powers of the Senate. If passed, the Senate would be reduced from 315 directly elected senators to 95 indirectly elected senators, chosen from and by regional councils, and 5 senators appointed by the President. The Senate would represent regional and territorial institutions and be involved mostly in legislative issues between the Italian State, its regions and the European Union. In most legislative areas outside regional competences, consultation with the Senate would no longer be necessary.

But critics, including members of right wing parties Movimento 5 Stelle, Forza Italia and Lega Nord, fear that the referendum is poorly written, gives too much power to the standing government and undermines democratic checks on the executive. Furthermore, several competences, including strategic infrastructure, energy production and distribution, environment and competition, would be reallocated to the national level. The reforms also include a supremacy clause, which allows the government to legislate when concerned with preserving national interests and the legal or economic unity of the nation. Critics assert that since the Senate would no longer be directly elected, the principles of democratic representation are at stake.

On the other side, there is concern that a “No” vote could have further felt repercussions. Matteo Renzi has already staked his political future on the outcome. Following in David Cameron’s footsteps, he has pledged to resign should the electorate vote down the reforms.

There are economic concerns as well. With Italy’s economy already struggling and public and private investment falling well below the average for members in the Eurozone, some foresee that any more uncertainty could force the economy even farther down the ladder.

Keeping an eye on Europe, experts worry that a “No” vote could further destabilize the EU. Renzi has announced that general elections will be held in 2018 regardless of the referendum result. There is fear that the void left by a potentially departed Renzi could be filled by a Eurosceptic party like the rising Movimento 5 Stelle.

Previous attempts at constitutional reform in 2001 and 2006 have proven unsuccessful. With a “Yes” vote bringing reform and a “No” vote bringing prime ministerial resignation, the fall will usher in yet another change to the Italian political landscape.


Sound bytes

Francesco, a recent graduate of the University of Florence’s political science program: “The fact that every single bill, be it a parliamentary or a government one, must always be discussed and voted in the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate of the Republic has been a cause of slowdown and inefficiency of the whole parliamentary system.”

Francesca from Sardinia, a student at the University of Florence, still undecided on how she will vote, worries about the media portrayal. “The politicians and the media are not talking about the content at all. And the reform program is huge! They present the referendum as a choice on government, more or less what happened with Brexit.”

Matteo, a researcher and professor at the University of Bologna, talks about separating from an antiquated tradition. “The reform would put a definitive end to the “sanctification” of the 1948 Constitution. It was conceived to create a weak government because Italy had to overcome the legacy of Fascism and faced a very divided society, due to the presence of a very strong Communist party. Today it’s better to have a more powerful and more accountable government.”

Some are more pessimistic, like Alessandro, an IT manager in Rome. “Regardless of the result,” he says, “we always end up at the same place. Nobody resolves anything.”

Morgana, a member of the non-partisan political movement, the Young European Federalists, worries about the uncertainties of forming a new government, should the vote result be “No” and Renzi resign. “It is fair to assume that there would not be much stability, considering the outcome of previous elections.” Like most Italians surveyed, she plans to cast her vote and sees the importance in voting itself. “As an active citizen I believe it is my civic duty to stay informed and vote.”

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