All you need to know about the Italian constitutional referendum

Vincenzo Scarpetta, Political Analyst

On 4 December Italians will vote in a referendum on a major constitutional reform. The referendum is highly significant both constitutionally and, given Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s pledge to resign if the reform is defeated, politically. In this post Vincenzo Scarpetta offers an overview of the proposed reform and the key objections to it that have been raised by opponents. Despite an apparent change of tack from Renzi in recent weeks he suggests that a ‘No’ vote would almost certainly result in his resignation.

On Sunday 4 December, Italians will head to the polls to either approve or reject what is, in fact, a major constitutional reform tabled by the government of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and adopted by the Italian parliament earlier this year. I say major because the reform, if confirmed by the referendum, would modify a third of the Italian Constitution – 47 articles out of a total 139. Most importantly, it would overhaul the country’s parliamentary system.

The Italian parliamentary system is unique in Europe

 Italy’s current parliamentary system, unique in Europe, finds its rationale in the historical context in which the Italian Constitution, which entered into force on 1 January 1948, was written. Italy had gone through two decades of fascist dictatorship and a civil war. Hence, the willingness to avoid future anti-democratic drifts explained the choice of a parliamentary system whereby the two chambers, both directly elected, have equal powers and can oversee one another. As a result, a government needs the backing of both chambers to enter office and must resign if it loses the confidence of one of them. Furthermore, no bill can become law unless it is adopted by both chambers – meaning that it can potentially go back and forth indefinitely.

Seventy years later, however, the context has changed significantly. Italy’s parliamentary system has increasingly been singled out as one of the reasons why the country has so far failed to undertake a number of wide-ranging reforms. Two chambers with equal powers, it has been argued, slow down the law-making process. Therefore, it came as no surprise that Renzi included this constitutional reform among his flagship pledges when he took over power in February 2014.

Key aspects of the reform 

The reform would curtail the powers of the Senate, the upper chamber of the Italian parliament. The number of senators would be reduced from 315 to 100, and they would no longer be directly elected. The reformed Senate would be comprised of 74 members of regional assemblies and 21 mayors – who would therefore wear a ‘double hat’. The remaining five senators would be appointed by the Italian President for special merits.

Crucially, as a result of the reform, the government would only need to obtain the confidence of the Chamber of Deputies – the lower house of the Italian parliament. As regards the legislative process, the two chambers would still be on equal footing on a number of subjects – including future constitutional reforms, the election of the Italian President, and the ratification of EU treaties. However, the lower chamber would have the last word in the vast majority of cases – notably including the budget.

The reform would also aim to clarify the division of labour between Italian regions and the central government by scrapping the so-called ‘shared competences’. In other words, individual policy areas would fall within the remit of either the central government or regional governments – but not of both.

Other points of the reform include the abolition of provinces (one layer of local administration) and the suppression of the National Council for Economics and Labour (CNEL) – a body widely seen as obsolete.

Why not everyone is happy

Renzi was in favour of scrapping the Senate altogether. Against such a benchmark, this reform comes across as a halfway house – which has, incidentally, raised a few eyebrows among Italian constitutional experts. Some of the most common objections are worth mentioning.

Firstly, the reform would in fact introduce several different legislative procedures. Not only would the Senate still take part in all of them, but its level of involvement (and influence) would also vary depending on the nature and the scope of a new bill. The concern is this could potentially lead to an increase in disputes (turf wars, if you prefer) between the two chambers – which might in turn need to be referred to, and settled by, the Italian Constitutional Court. This would indeed be a rather paradoxical outcome for a reform whose main stated aim is to streamline Italy’s parliamentary system and law-making process.

Secondly, doubts have arisen over the ability of those mayors and members of regional assemblies who would also have to serve as senators to do both jobs effectively. On a related note, the government’s claim that the new system would help ‘cut the cost of politics’ has also been put into question – since the part-time senators created by the reform would obviously not be paid two salaries, but would still have to travel to and from Rome to attend parliamentary sessions.

Thirdly, it has been pointed out that the constitutional reform combined with the recently adopted new electoral law – a two-round system which eventually grants the winning party 54 per cent of seats in the lower chamber of the Italian parliament – would disproportionately increase the power of the government of the day vis-à-vis the opposition. As a result of the reform, most laws could ultimately be passed by the lower chamber on its own – where the government would be guaranteed an absolute majority. Essentially, in most cases the lower chamber could simply decide to press ahead and ignore the opinion of the Senate. This is perceived by some as a potential threat to the mechanism of checks and balances.

The significance of the referendum goes way beyond the reform

In Italy, it is far from unusual for constitutional reforms to be put to referendums. The Constitution itself envisages this possibility unless the changes are adopted by a ‘supermajority’ of two-thirds in both houses of parliament. Furthermore, constitutional referendums do not need a minimum turnout to be valid. However, it is Europe’s worst-kept secret that the significance of the vote Italians will cast on December 4 goes way beyond the substance of this constitutional reform.

Renzi’s political future will be on the line. Perhaps betrayed by his impulsiveness and self-confidence, the Italian Prime Minister has declared on numerous occasions that he would pack up and resign if voters reject the reform. Needless to say, this has instantly turned the referendum into a plebiscite on him. Inevitably, all opposition parties are campaigning ferociously against the reform – in large part because they are smelling a golden opportunity to force Renzi out of power. In other words, it is fair to say the ‘personalisation’ of the referendum has backfired.

Therefore, over the past couple of months, Renzi has opted for a radical change of tack. He is now refusing to talk about his political future and is urging everyone to focus on the actual question printed on the ballot paper. However, the impression is this may be too little, too late. Frankly, I cannot see Renzi staying in power for long after losing this referendum. The pressure on him would be enormous, including from a rebel fringe within his own party. He would have to quit – potentially triggering a new wave of political instability in Italy.

Most recent opinion polls put the ‘No’ to the reform in the lead, but I would not rush to write Renzi off just yet. He is an exceptional campaigner and TV debates are his natural habitat. Indeed, a victory in the referendum would strengthen his grip on his party and boost his credentials in Europe. A long, no-holds-barred campaign lies ahead – and it will be well worth watching.

About the author 

Vincenzo Scarpetta is a Senior Policy Analyst at Open Europe, specialising in the politics and economics of southern Europe. He tweets @LondonerVince.

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