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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading