The Italics Field Guide To The Italian Constitutional Referendum

All you need to know about the most awkward, atypical, and potentially consequential decision in Italian politics (for now).

Constitutional Referendum Italy
Photo: Morning Brew, Unsplash.

All you need to know about the most awkward, atypical, and potentially consequential decision in Italian politics (for now).

Despite an unprecedented year, Italian politics continues on its erstwhile course and the upcoming referendum is proof positive that the wheels of government insist on spinning. Yes, even with a concerning rise in the number of coronavirus infections, a worse than expected GDP forecast, the murky protocols surrounding school openings, and a scramble to spend the hefty sums coming from the EU, the government is in the midst of a potentially consequential Constitutional battle that could set the stage for a sea change of reforms. Or could it?

You would be forgiven for not being captivated by the headlines, and there is surely quite a lot of competition for our attention in the press these days. But in a time when every news story seems like another tick on the doomsday clock, actual politics is almost a refreshing change.

If you’re still not quite sure what we’re talking about, why it matters, or what side you should be on, don’t worry! That’s why we’re here, to answer all of your burning questions about parliamentary regulations and potential changes.

Ok, what are we talking about? 

Initially scheduled to take place on 29 March 2020 and postponed due to the lockdown, voters will instead go to the polls on September 20-21 to approve or reject a constitutional law that amends various aspects of the Italian Constitution, the full text of which is found on the official blog (Gazzetta Ufficiale) of the Republic. The substance of the referendum concerns Articles 56, 57, and 59, which dictate the number of MPs both in the lower house (Camera dei Deputati) and the upper house (Senato). Under the proposal, seats in the lower house would be reduced from 630 to 400, and the number of Senate seats would shift from 315 to 200. In addition, the number of Senators for Life, an honorary title that the President of the Republic can bestow on people who are considered to have served the Republic in some significant way, would be limited to five.

The official text of the proposed referendum reads as follows:

Do you approve the text of the Constitutional Law concerning ‘Amendments to articles 56, 57 and 59 of the Constitution concerning the reduction of the number of parliamentarians’ approved by Parliament and published in the Official Gazette no. 240 of 12 October 2019?

Why are we even voting on this? 

Much of the talk about constitutional reform dates back to 2016, when a PD led coalition proposed a series of far-reaching reforms which would have simplified the law-making process in Italy but in doing so would have effectively gutted the Senate, reducing its number to 100 and taking away its voting power in the Chamber. Many of us will also remember that the resounding rejection of these reforms led to the resignation of Matteo Renzi, a constitutional crisis, and the rise of populist parties like the Five Star and League.

The current referendum has a much narrower mandate and is only focused on reducing the number of seats in Parliament. It does not include any measures directed at concentrating power in one house or another, does not change the process of elected representatives, and does not transfer greater powers to the central government (all of which was proposed in 2016). It is, however, one of the flagship items on the Five Star Agenda: the party has made its name on the notion of cutting down on bureaucracy, reducing the costs of government to the taxpayer, and streamlining democratic practices between citizens and ministers. The reforms were overwhelmingly approved in Parliament last year and continue to poll at a high level for approval.

Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, Italian political parties were largely in agreement that the system needed to be reformed in some significant manner: in the months subsequent and the ensuing pressure on the government to deliver quick results to both lawmakers and citizens, the need for change has become an imperative.

So, what is the benefit of reducing the number of parliamentarians, anyway? 

According to the Five Star Movement (M5S), the main benefit of the reduction (or taglio) would be a reduction in costs and an increase in efficiency. Representatives of the M5S estimate that the reduction would save taxpayers around 500 million euro per five year legislature, though economists have placed the figure closer to around 285 million in the same term, which amounts to around 0.007% of public spending. While not a particularly impressive figure, it does reinforce the platform of the M5S that they are actively working to redistribute funds from the privileged few to the disenfranchised many (though critics argue that it is more in word than in deed).

More interesting perhaps is the argument for streamlining a bloated parliament whose unwieldy size has inhibited rather than encouraging the direct democracy that it was intended to protect. As they note in a blog post:

Almost 1000 parliamentarians in total inevitably leads to greater fragmentation between various parliamentary groups, which sometimes do not represent the main political forces present in the country but small groups that serve only to ensure their own survival. A more reasonable number of parliamentarians, on the other hand, means fewer political clans, ideally only those that correspond to parties and movements voted for by citizens.

Statistically speaking, Italy has one of the largest parliaments in the world, with one engineer calculating that the optimal number for the country would be 570 seats in total, giving its current configuration 375 seats too many. Indeed, the current ratio stands at 1.6 lawmakers for every 100,000 citizens, more than both Germany and France but less than the UK. However, the latter number includes the House of Lords, which are appointed instead of elected, meaning that in terms of straight democratic representatives, Italy leads its European neighbors. Proponents of the referendum also argue that reducing the number of representatives also reduces corruption, as a more streamlined government mechanism with fewer tentacles has a greater potential for accountability and transparency. Simply put, fewer cooks in the kitchen means less spillage, fewer broken plates, and a higher probability of cohesion.

Sounds good I guess. Any drawbacks? 

Well, popular discourse on the No side of the debate tends to frame the measure as a reduction of democratic representation itself, though that is not quite accurate. Although fewer MPs would mean that the ratio would necessarily increase to approximately 1 representative for every 151,000 inhabitants, it would not change anything in the actual exercise of government or democratic participation. But, it’s easy to see why the thought persists, and political stakeholders make a similar argument, albeit with certain nuances: the current system (particularly the Senate) is poorly distributed throughout the country, no mechanism exists to connect representatives more directly with their constituencies, and many of the functions of the Deputies and Senate overlap too much to be effective. Moreover, the referendum does not eliminate the so-called ‘perfect bicameralism’, which has been widely cited as one of the primary hindrances to legislative efficiency in Italy and which was one of the cornerstones of the 2016 referendum.

In addition, fewer seats could pose particular challenges to smaller, less well funded political parties who nonetheless represent the political opinions of their constituency. As a case in point, the Comitati NoiNo is composed of representatives from smaller parties with less representation. Most parties on the left, such as the Christian Democrats, the Communist Party, and the Green Party have all publicly declared their opposition to the amendment.

Hmmm, that’s something to consider. So what about the larger political parties? Where do they stand? 

If politics makes for strange bedfellows, Italian politics means that you may find yourself waking up in a haze next to the one person you would never have imagined and then denying that you were ever there. When the original vote was cast in Parliament, it passed with a stunning 553-14 majority, with representatives from the M5S, Italia Viva, and the PD affirming the measures alongside the Fratelli d’Italia, the Lega, and Forza Italia. Such broad support amongst parties has contributed to the widespread public support for the measure.

However, things get a bit more complicated from there and as the vote draws closer, differences have emerged amongst the parties who were in agreement last year (or, a lifetime ago). While the M5S has remained solidly in favor of the referendum, the PD has waffled internally and their support seems less unanimous, so much so that party leader Nicola Zingaretti placed a public call in La Repubblica calling for unity in the party for the Yes vote (while still proclaiming that party members were free to vote as they chose). Matteo Salvini and Georgia Meloni have both affirmed that they will vote Yes but as both are well versed in palace intrigue, there is no shortage of allegations that they may flip at the 11th hour. Silvio Berlusconi, whose party voted in favor of the referendum, has since declared unironically that he is “still reflecting” on a measure that risks becoming a “demagogic act” against democracy.

Finally, Matteo Renzi has expressed his opinion that the referendum is a “spot” or a plug for the M5S rather than a concrete set of constitutional and legislative reforms, and has thus far kept mum about which way he will vote. However, he noted that he’s “not taking it personally” this time, as he did in 2016, in the most awkward and unequivocal sign that he is absolutely taking it personally.

What does the Conte government have to say about all of this? 

Very likely having learned the lessons of the Renzi government, Giuseppe Conte has remained largely out of the spotlight regarding the referendum, though he has declared that he will vote in favor of it, citing the need to move towards a more efficient legislative system. However, he has taken great pains to distance his government from the results and has instead geared the vote towards the “weight of public opinion” that falls on parliamentarians themselves. Of course, with no party of his own and forced to rely on a coalition government made up of the steadfast M5S, the turbulent PD and the ever awkward Italia Viva, one cannot help but imagine that the result of the vote will indicate a significant show of support for the government itself.

On the other hand, the Conte government has quite a lot on its plate right now, and it may be that the Prime Minister will lay low until after the vote or at least, refrain from staking his tenure on it.

Be honest. Does it really matter? 

Yeah, it really does. Look, parliamentary politics may not sound very sexy and indeed, it may not actually be that sexy but it is kind of a big deal. First, constitutional referendums do not require a quorum, so the vote will hold regardless of how large the turnout is. While political participation is high in Italy and the referendum vote is taking place on the same day as a number of (also significant) local and regional elections, participation still matters and the right to vote through referendum is one of the most important acts enshrined in the Italian constitution.

Second, most people don’t even know who their parliamentary representatives are and whether or not they vote to reduce that number, having some familiarity with who is in office goes much further towards transparency and accountability for elected representatives. If you can name your MPs and Senators without having to look them up on Wikipedia, all the better. If you know where they stand, what they’ve voted on and how they spend your money, you’re much more likely to participate in the culture that keeps them there. So while this referendum might not seem all that important in its substance, and while it may not put any more money in your pocket at the end of the year, it sets a precedent for political participation that keeps democracies vibrant and vital. And if recent world events have taught us anything, it should be that democracy does not take place in a vacuum, and when it is neglected, it withers.

Finally, it is worth nothing that this is only the fourth constitutional referendum that has ever been called in Italy and, if it passes, would only be the second time that the constitution would be amended with popular approval. Changing the constitution of any country, no matter how old or powerful or dysfunctional or all of the above, is most certainly a big deal. And in a time when Italy is on the cusp of major economic reforms, a move towards political reform of any magnitude is noteworthy, regardless of which side you land upon. That of course is the great thing about democracy: you can be on the right or left, populist or elitist, erudite or awkward, yet you still get to shape the course of a nation. So while it may not be the biggest news of the year (or even the week), the Constitutional Referendum may well prove to be the most consequential.

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