The concern about how the decrease in the number of legislators would affect popular representation is a serious one
It looks like that once again Italy’s political class is embarking on a new endeavour to introduce and implement constitutional reforms that are supposed to improve the functioning of the country’s liberal democracy, and bridge the gap between the public and its representatives. Recently, the whips of the parties within the Chamber of Deputies have agreed that on October 7, the Lower House would debate a Five Star Movement proposal to reduce the number of parliamentarians and then vote the following day. This would be the fourth and final reading of the bill before it receives the go ahead.
The idea of cutting the number of elected MPs was one of the major promises included in the 2018 Five Star Movement electoral programme on constitutional affairs. From their perspective, Italy has an eccessive number of deputies in relation to its population size, if you compare it with the other major democracies. Currently, the Mediterranean country has the second highest proportion of lawmakers in the EU after the UK, with 630 elected representatives in the Chamber of Deputies and 315 members of the Senate (excluding the senators for life). The proposed reduction would move Italy onto fifth place, as there would be 400 deputies and 115 senators. Moreover, the senators chosen by Italians living abroad would be four and not six, and the senators for life would still be nominated by the President of the Republic, but would be no more than five. Because it is a decree that will change the constitution and voted with a simple majority — and not with two-thirds — it might be subject to a popular referendum if requested by either at least a fifth of members of the Chamber of Deputies or the Senate, or 500 thousand ordinary citizens or five regional councils. It should be noted that since 1983, there have been seven attempts to decrease the number of representatives and senators and none of them have succeeded. Furthermore, although it may seem like a policy that could help to improve the Italian political system, in reality it is not so straightforward.
According to the Five Star Movement leader and Italy’s newly-installed foreign minister, Luigi Di Maio, his flagship reform has numerous advantages, such as saving the state 500 million euros which can be spent on other policies (e.g. building new schools) and simplifying the parliamentary decision-making process. However, some analysts say that it would actually save 57 million euros a year, i.e. 0,007% of public expenditure, which is a paltry sum in comparison to the state’s budget. In addition, many constitutionalists have highlighted that diminishing the number of MPs without surpassing Italy’s equal-level bicameralism would not necessarily ameliorate the efficiency of the legislative procedures and the functioning of the Parliament. Consequently, this proposal would simply reduce popular representation, thus affecting parliamentary regulations and the work of the commissions. It would also mean that minor parties would risk not being represented, hence some have suggested a more circumscribed and less invasive diminution arriving at 500 deputies and 250 senators. On that note, the proposed reduction might lead to lobbyists holding more influence over the governing institutions since they would have less parliamentarians to deal with.
The concern about how the decrease in the number of lawmakers would affect popular representation is a serious one, as entire areas could end up not having an elected legislator. At the moment there is one parliamentarian for every 81 thousand citizens and this would go down to one representative every 127 thousand people, if the reform passes. For this reason, many believe that the best way to fix Italy’s parliamentary democracy is to reintroduce an electoral system based on proportional representation. As a matter of fact, this new constitutional reform would inevitably necessitate a change in how people vote in general elections, which would take a few months because the electoral colleges would have their boundaries modified in order to guarantee that the populations living in various parts of the country would compete on an equal footing. Presently, Italy has a mixed voting system in which a third of deputies and senators are chosen by first-past-the-post in single member districts and the rest are selected in proportion to the votes they receive. The center-left Partito Democratico (Democratic Party), who are in the ruling coalition together with the Five Star Movement, have made it clear that the cut in the number of representatives should be counterbalanced with a new electoral law. Otherwise “we risk having six regions without senators” to quote Graziano Delrio, the head of the Partito Democratico group in the Chamber of Deputies.
Regardless of whether the number of MPs is lowered or not, proportional representation would greatly benefit Italian politics. As the legal expert Professor Luigi Ferrajoli explained, it is the most democratic form of voting because it assures the representation of all interests and political forces. Moreover, it safeguards the centrality of parliament seeing as any party that gains for instance 30% of the vote is forced to make compromises in order to govern the country. Therefore, only a proportional voting system would allow the development of an effective political pluralism. In this way government policies would reflect the opinions of the majority. Evidence also demonstrates that countries which use proportional representation have implemented laws that endure in the long-term and not just until the next general election.
To sum up, the intent to decrease the number of Italian MPs may seem like an interesting and attractive prospect, but it might not be financially worthwhile since it would save only 0,0000258% of the country’s GDP. This is why it needs to backed by a carefully considered policy plan that would mitigate its negative consequences and has to be coupled with other far-reaching reforms, such as switching from a mixed to a more proportional way of voting so that most Italians would feel that their views are represented in Parliament. Another reduction that could be even more advantageous for Italy’s democracy would be the lowering of the salaries earned by the deputies and senators which are 60% higher than the European Union average.