The future of Republican Italy

How might the constitutional referendum change the country?

Gian Marco Farese

Government and governance | The World

1 December 2016

Gian Marco Farese takes a look at the proposed changes to Italy’s Constitution, and what’s at stake in Sunday’s vote.

On 4 December, Italian citizens will participate in a referendum that could result in the biggest changes to their Constitution since it was established 70 years ago.

The referendum is being driven by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and the Minister for Constitutional Reforms Maria Elena Boschi. They propose three main changes to the Constitution.

The first is to limit the legislative power of the Senate and reduce the number of Senators. The Italian Parliament currently consists of two Chambers: the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate of the Republic. In its current form, Article 70 of the Italian Constitution states that a law has to be approved by both Chambers to become effective.

The proponents of the referendum want to change this article so that laws would not necessarily need to be approved by the Senate and the Senate would not be able to pass a motion of no-confidence against the Government. Furthermore, Senators would not be elected directly by citizens but instead by political parties.

Proponents say this change would reinforce the power and stability of the government and substantially simplify and accelerate the legislative process. In addition, the reduction in the number of Senators would result in a significant cost reduction estimated at 100 million euros.

However, opponents are concerned that without a fully empowered Senate, the government would have complete legislative power and there would be no countervailing force to control its activities. Furthermore, with Senators being elected by political parties, the interests of the parties rather than local citizens would prevail.

Opponents also claim that not only is it completely unclear how the Senate can effectively participate in the legislative process, but also that the proposed article would be subject to legal interpretations rather than being a single, clearly stated regulatory text.

In the view of journalist Marco Travaglio, rather than being simplified, the legislative process would become much more complex: a particular law could generate conflicts between the two Chambers. The result would be an interminable process that would complicate and further slow the process, rather than improving it.

A number of political parties, among them the 5 Star Movement and Italian Left, denounced the deceiving character of the text, arguing that its formulation will favour only outcomes ‘for’ what the ruling government wants while concealing the real methods through which the changes would take place. For example, the question of the referendum asks citizens if they are in favour of the reduction of the number of MPs and of the cost of governance, but does not specify how this would happen.

Considering the critical financial state of Italy and the many cases of corrupt politicians stealing public money, it is hard to imagine who would not support this in principle.

The second proposed change is to revise the division of power between the central State and the regions. All ‘concurrent competences’ – matters which fall under the jurisdiction of both the central State and the regional governments – would be reassigned to either the State’s or the Regions’ competence. At the same time, less autonomous power would be given to regional governments and more power to the central State.

Opponents lament that regional governments would be rendered almost useless and that the interests of local people would end up being ignored. The central government would be able to determine which matters regional governments could control: for example, the installation of gas pipelines or the creation of new infrastructure in certain territories.

The third proposal is to change the number of signatures required for popular initiatives and for referendum proposals: from 50,000 to 150,000 signatures for the former; and from 500,000 to 800,000 signatures for the latter.

Opponents are very critical of this and consider it extremely dangerous for a democratic country such as Italy. If citizens cannot elect their representatives, and if more and more power is placed in the hands of only one person, there is a huge risk of an authoritarian government taking over, much like Mussolini’s Fascism. Once the new system is enacted, it may be very hard to repeal it because changes to the Constitution will be much more difficult than they are now.

It should also be said that the Constitutional reform which is the basis of the upcoming Referendum was not approved with a large parliamentary consensus. It was approved only by Prime Minister Renzi’s coalition. This is contrary to what is set out in the original 1947 Constitution, which was approved with a large consensus from different political parties.

Overall, those for and against the proposed constitutional changes have persuasive arguments. On the one hand, the new legislative system could potentially simplify the reformation process and reduce the costs of governance. On the other, the changes could potentially make it easier for an authoritarian government to come to power.

The upcoming referendum is crucial for the future of Italy and could have far-reaching implications for the stability of Europe. The Constitution represents the fundamental law on which the whole Republic is founded – the cornerstones of the Italian democracy as it was born in 1946. It is time for all Italians to think carefully and consider all the pros and cons before voting. Whatever the result, it will represent a turning point in the history of Republican Italy.

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