More than just populism: Renzi, the Italian Senate referendum and the perils of second chamber reform

Roberta Damiani passport-styleMeg-RussellOn 4 December Italians decisively rejected Matteo Renzi’s proposed constitutional reforms, which centred on reforming the Senate – leading to his resignation as Prime Minister. The international media widely reported this as a victory for populism. In this post Roberta Damiani and Meg Russell argue that the referendum result was more complex than that. It demonstrated the perils of referendums on detailed constitutional matters and in particular – with echoes of Nick Clegg’s experience in the UK – of attempted second chamber reform.

Italian ‘perfect’ bicameralism has dodged another bullet. After a long, fragmented, and highly personalised referendum campaign, on 4 December the Italian electorate voted against Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s constitutional reform by 59 per cent to 41 per cent, on a turnout of 65 per cent. The main elements of the reform would have been to drastically cut the powers of the upper chamber (the Senate), reduce its membership from 315 to 100, and turn it from a directly elected chamber into an indirectly-elected one, comprising representatives of the regions. Vincenzo Scarpetta has previously described what else the reform entailed on this blog.

Opinion polls over the last few months showed a shift towards a No outcome. The latest, published before the two-week ‘electoral silence’, indicated that 54 per cent of respondents would vote against the reform. This time, the polls showed the correct outcome. Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who had linked the passage of this reform to his government’s survival, resigned the following day. In an emotional speech delivered on the evening of the defeat, he claimed: ‘I wanted to get rid of some seats in Italian politics. I failed, and hence the only seat I can get rid of is my own’.

Many commentators described the possibility of a No victory as the third anti-establishment vote of the year, following the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s election. The main reason for this interpretation was that Renzi, a little too confident of the merits of his reform, highly personalised the campaign, and bet his political career on it. This naturally meant that his opponents would vote against him, and turned the referendum into a protest vote against the government. Renzi eventually personalised the loss just as much as the campaign: ‘To all my friends from the Yes front I say that you didn’t lose. I lost’, he said in his speech.

Certainly, the aim of getting rid of Renzi explains part of the No vote. Over the 1000 days that he was Prime Minister, he had become increasingly unpopular. Two populist opposition parties, the far-right Northern League and Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement, campaigned for No and are now calling for new elections.

The rise of populism is certainly nothing to be relaxed about. However, interpreting the outcome of this referendum as another populist blow to the political establishment would be too simplistic. In fact, populism was found on both sides of the campaign. The Yes side, with its slogans such as ‘cheaper politics’ and ‘fewer politicians’, was far from immune. Renzi himself had won the primary of the Democratic Party in 2014 thanks to his reputation as the anti-establishment ‘scrapper’.

More importantly, the No campaign had the support of many constitutional experts (including some ideologically on the left), who warned against the almost complete transformation of the Constitution that this reform would have brought about. What worried them even more was the effect of this reform together with the new electoral law – which was approved by parliament in 2015, quite foolishly, in a form that only applied to the lower chamber, in anticipation of elections to the Senate being ended. According to this system, if a party, or a coalition, won at least 40 per cent of the vote, it would be attributed a plurality bonus giving 55 per cent of the seats, with the remaining seats distributed to the other parties in a proportional way. If no party or coalition reached 40 per cent, a second round would be held where electors could choose between the two parties who got the highest shares.

The fact that the new electoral law only applies to the Chamber of Deputies – while the No vote leaves the Senate as a directly elected chamber – contributed to the chaos following the referendum. After Renzi’s resignation, President of the Republic Sergio Mattarella had to choose between two main alternatives: giving the task of forming a new government to someone new, or calling for a new general election. The latter, however, was almost automatically excluded until the electoral law for the two chambers is more closely aligned. Paolo Gentiloni, previously Foreign Minister, was sworn in as Prime Minister on Tuesday and won confidence votes in both chambers.

Renzi’s Senate reform, combined with the new electoral law, would have completely transformed the Italian political system from very consensual – with a powerful second chamber and relatively proportional elections – to highly majoritarian. Such a move is hard to sell in Italy. Italian democracy is still young, and the 1948 Constitution was written with the very explicit aim of making it impossible for another Mussolini to take over the country, and instead to encourage dialogue between all political groups. A series of necessary compromises between the political parties in the Constituent Assembly led to a system of so-called ‘perfect’ bicameralism, where the two chambers have co-equal powers. This includes not only a joint veto on all bills, but the ability for both to vote ‘no confidence’ in the government and cause it to fall. Legislatively, this is slow and repetitive; more recently (since the electoral system was last changed in 2005 to become more dissimilar for the two chambers) it has fuelled instability, as governments have struggled to retain a Senate majority. But the principle of requiring broad agreement between competing political groups was created by design in the openly anti-fascist Constitution.

In his handling of the referendum, Renzi can be seen as having committed two basic political errors. First, his proposed second chamber reforms were wide-ranging and remarkably complex – resulting in a package which could be objected to for numerous reasons. Had he been less ambitious, and sought a simple reform, to just remove the Senate’s ability to vote confidence in the government, few could have argued against it – it is largely uncontroversial in expert circles that this is a flaw of the Italian system. Renzi seemed undeterred by the fact that there have been numerous previous attempts to reform Italian bicameralism, all of which have failed. He had ignored the basic international lesson that second chamber reform is remarkably difficult. Evidently he had overlooked the recent experience in Ireland, where a supposedly unpopular Senate was reprieved in a referendum where voters were widely expected to back abolition. The Irish Senate was seen as too weak, and the Italian one as too strong; this is a basic conundrum of bicameralism. Indeed, Renzi could usefully have looked to former UK Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who arrived in office intent on wholesale reform of the House of Lords – seeking to succeed where numerous others had failed. Both men were relatively inexperienced parliamentarians (indeed Renzi had never sat in the national parliament before becoming Prime Minister); both thought they somehow had the skills to do better than their predecessors. Both misjudged the situation, proposed ambitious reform packages, and spectacularly failed.

Renzi’s second basic error was to link the outcome of this already risky referendum to his own political future. He created a tension between the political implications of the referendum, on the one hand, and the constitutional implications on the other. By attaching the survival of his government to this reform, Renzi effectively asked the electorate to make a painful choice. They could either vote for short-term stability (keeping him in power), but the price to pay for that was the anti-fascist legacy of the Constitution. Or, they could somehow ‘sacrifice’ Renzi and endure some political chaos, while ensuring that the long-term rules of the game stayed the same. Italians opted for the latter option – after all, political crises are neither a novelty nor a big scare in Italy, while constitutional reforms are a much bigger issue. Again perhaps we can see a parallel with Clegg here. Although (sensibly) not staking his career on it, his heavy defeat in the AV referendum of 2011 was at least in part a personal rebuke from the electorate.

Definitive data on how Italy’s vote was distributed among the population is still emerging, but it seems hard to definitively conclude that populism was dominant. The Financial Times shows that ‘No’ won by very large margins in areas of high unemployment, but also in rich northern areas where it is low. Data from research centre the Cattaneo Institute suggests that only Five Star Movement electors united behind their party, while supporters of all other parties were highly divided. In particular, the Cattaneo Institute identified a ‘diaspora’ of Democratic Party supporters for No, which hardly supports the thesis of a protest vote. Most telling is perhaps that, in contrast with Brexit and Trump, there was only mild correlation between education level and vote – those with university degrees were more likely to vote in favour of the reform, but only by a relatively small margin. Another interesting finding at the level of detail is that while respondents agreed the two chambers should have different functions, they were reluctant to give up direct elections for the Senate. This again illustrates a conundrum of second chambers: where they enjoy democratic legitimacy they may be seen by governments as ‘too’ powerful; nonetheless the electorate will want to guard that power.

So this result was about more than simply populism. Renzi was trying to sell the public a reform which would not only strip them of their right to elect the senators, but also radically transform the consensual nature of Italian politics. The public chose to resist this change. The Italian Constitution therefore looks set to survive, unmodified, for the foreseeable future.

About the authors

Roberta Damiani is a PhD candidate at the Constitution Unit. Her research is focused on the role of the Senate in the Italian legislative process.

Professor Meg Russell is the Director of the Constitution Unit.

8 thoughts on “More than just populism: Renzi, the Italian Senate referendum and the perils of second chamber reform

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  7. the majority of Italians are very attached to their Republican, Anti-fascist Constitution 8as the resullt of the referendum showed).
    Such sweeping changes as proposed by Renzi might, and I emphasize might, have obtained some support among the general population had they been the fruit of a consitiutional Assembly and been clearly debated in depth.
    As it was Renzi had no mandate (being PM only because he had orchestrated the fall of Letta) and certainly no mandate for such far-reaching changes which the general public had never asked for.

  8. I don’t think that it is correct to describe Nick Clegg as “a relatively inexperienced parliamentarian”. He had been an MP since 2005 and before that an MEP from 1999-2004 so he certainly had experience in forming coalitions on particular issues. Indeed, his experience in the European Parliament may have been a factor in his willingness to take his Party into coalition in 2010. They did, after all, have the option of ‘confidence and supply’. The failure of Lords reform should really be placed at the door of Ed Miliband who committed the Labour Party to oppose the programme motion on Lords’ reform in the Commons, despite Lords’ reform being in their 2010 Manifesto and the proposals in the Bill being in line with those of a joint committee of the two houses. He undoubtedly did this for tactical reasons, without regard to the wider benefits of Lords’ reform.

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