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.

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Reforming the Italian Senate

Roberta Damiani passport-style

The UK is far from the only country with a long-standing controversy over the composition and powers of its second chamber. In this post Roberta Damiani provides an update on the latest attempt to reform the Italian Senate. Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is proposing to significantly reduce the Senate’s powers, and to move from direct to indirect elections, but it is far from certain that he will be successful.

The House of Lords has recently come under the spotlight for challenging the elected chamber on tax credit cuts, reviving the never-ending debate about the appropriate powers of a second chamber. But the UK is not the only European country experiencing such controversy: in Italy, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s government is pursuing radical Senate reform. There too, both the powers and the composition of the second chamber are at stake. And there too, reformers may find that achieving major change is harder than they first imagined.

The starting point for the debate in Italy is a feature of the country’s political system that is almost unique among parliamentary democracies: so-called ‘perfect’ bicameralism. That is, the two parliamentary chambers have exactly the same powers as each other – including on financial matters, and even with respect to votes of confidence in the government. Both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate also share the legitimacy of direct election: the latter currently consists of 315 elected members, plus a few life senators, who are either former Presidents of the Republic or highly accomplished citizens appointed by the President.

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A new bicameral parliament for Italy?

Carlo Fusaro

The Italian Parliament is presently involved in an effort to thoroughly revise the design and powers of the Senate. Carlo Fusaro outlines the background to the ‘perfect bicameralism’ that has existed in Italy until now and the nature of the current reforms. He argues that diversification of the two chambers is long overdue, and addresses concerns raised by those who oppose reform.

On 22 December 1947, minutes before the final vote on the new Italian Constitution, Meuccio Ruini, the Rapporteur, adamantly stated that the design of the bicameral parliament was not satisfactory. Supporters of the unicameral and the bicameral solutions had battled hard. The latter prevailed, but they were divided among those who envisioned a second chamber as the representative body of the new regions, those who wanted social interests to be represented and those who wanted a second chamber to restrict any revolutionary tendency in the other house. As a concession, the champions of unicameralism obtained universal suffrage and the direct election of both Houses. The notion of a Senate as the place where the new regions would be represented was set aside.

As a result, the two chambers that were established varied in (a) number of members; (b) duration (five versus six years); (c) voters’ age (only citizens over 25 elect the Senate); (d) a handful of senators for life. Beyond this, the idea of a strict functional equality (including equal powers over legislation) was reaffirmed and Italy’s uniquely undifferentiated bicameral parliament was born. The bicameral principle was therefore implemented but stripped of its original purpose. An Italian scholar defined it ‘an absurd and cumbersome bicameralism’ (Crisafulli, 1973), an American one, a system ‘looking for trouble’ (Wheare, 1963). 

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