Posted in: Europe

The Italian Job

By | December 1, 2016


Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi on a visit to Russia in 2015

Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi on a visit to Russia in 2015

On December 4, the Italian people will face a vote that could rock the foundations of their government. The vote is on a proposed constitutional amendment that calls for a complete restructuring of Italy’s legislative branch. Championed by prime minister Matteo Renzi, the purpose of the amendment is to streamline government processes by reducing government expenses and gridlock in Parliament. The proposal would replace the 315-member Senate of the Republic with 100 legislators in a Senate of Regions. To some, however, this cause is not as heroic as it is advertised.

American media has lauded Renzi as a rising star who fights for the Italian people. With President Obama and the major Italian media networks on his side, he is rarely scrutinized. However, his referendum reveals that he may not have the best interests of the Italian people in mind.

A Problem of Excess

After the monarchy was abolished in 1946, Italy developed a constitutional republic with a multi-party system. The central government was constructed of three branches: the executive, the legislative, and the judiciary. The upcoming referendum will focus on its largest perceived inefficiency: the legislative branch.

Parliament is bicameral, with two bodies that have identical legislative powers. The Senate of the Republic has 315 members who represent the 20 regions of Italy, and the Chamber of Deputies has 630 members who come from 26 constituencies. The two bodies almost never meet jointly, and in order for a law to be passed, it must be ratified by both houses independently. The prime minister directs and guides the parliamentary members and is himself a member of the majority party of Parliament.

A pressing concern in Italy is the inefficiency caused by the perfect bicameralism in its legislative branch. There are no distinct roles between the House and the Senate, which has led to a government that some claim is far bigger than it needs to be. In an interview with the HPR, Nadia Urbinati, a professor of political theory at Columbia University, supported reform in the Italian system. “As it is now, the structure of the Senate, in terms of the number of senators, their distribution on the regional level, and their functions, is very ambiguous.” And yet, Italy has already amended its constitution 15 times and has revised 43 out of its 139 articles. Renzi’s reform alone would alter 47 articles.

According to David Kertzer, a professor of Italian studies at Brown University, the establishment of the republic in 1946 effectively removed the distinction between the two houses of Parliament. In the days of the monarchy, he told the HPR, male voters elected the House of Deputies and the king appointed members of the Senate. But after the rise of the Republic of Italy after World War II, the people were given the right to elect members of both bodies, and the institutional distinction ceased to exist.

Healthy Skepticism

Renzi was not the leader of his party during the most recent general election. He rose to power by staging a coup within his own Democratic Party that led to the previous prime minister, Enrico Letta, being voted out by by fellow members.

According to Urbinati, Renzi’s referendum will pave the way toward further consolidation of command. Opponents of the referendum claim it will strengthen the power of the executive cabinet, which is headed by the prime minister. The referendum would reduce the membership of Parliament, which would mean fewer seats for Italy’s many parties. Instead of direct elections, regional councils would appoint the Senate members. And the Italian people would need 150,000 signatures instead of 50,000 signatures to bring proposals to Parliament, diminishing the power of the average voter. “The new [referendum] we are going to vote on is a form of not explicit, untold presidentialism. It is going to lead to an executive who will have extraordinary power,” said Urbinati. Recalling Italy’s experience with fascism, she voiced concerns about the potential dangers of Renzi’s vision. Renzi, in her opinion, is creating his own “delegated power” to go above and beyond the balancing power of the Parliament and of his party.

The biggest and most concerning restrictions on Parliament, if the referendum were to result in a “yes” vote, would be the timelines imposed on parliamentary voting. One of Renzi’s main assertions is that the time it takes to pass a law is excessively lengthy and burdensome, which has rendered the Italian government unable to quickly adapt policy to fit Italy’s ongoing economic problems. Some, like Professor Urbinati, are skeptical of this claim. In her words, “This is absolutely wrong… A huge amount of legislation has been made. The question is not how many laws the system is capable of producing because until now, it has been capable of producing too many laws.” Under the proposed referendum, the Chamber of Deputies would have 75 days, the Senate would only have 15 days, and the cabinet and prime minister would be the only ones able to limit the use of the fast-tracked deadlines.

In addition, the majority party would hold immense power within the new electoral system. Any party who received 40 percent of the vote would hold 54 percent of the Deputies. If no party were to reach 40 percent, the top two would compete in a runoff election for the majority of deputy seats. This means that just 20 to 25 percent of Italian voters could elect a majority of the representation in the House of Deputies. This change could cement Renzi’s position and the power of the Democratic Party as the majority in Italy.

Strength in Consolidation

Others believe a stronger executive—in their opinion synonymous with government stability—is exactly what Italy needs. If ministers lose a no-confidence vote, the president dissolves the Parliament and elections are held again. Until recently, Italy could barely keep governments for a single year. “Ministers aren’t in office long enough to do any long-term planning. Something is begun and then a new government takes over. There is no continuity,” said Kertzer. Additionally, because no party has ever had an absolute majority, prime ministers have had to pander to coalitions.

Although the referendum is not directly dealing with Italy’s economic troubles or corruption at the local level, Renzi is tacitly attempting to address the country’s structural problems. The new parliamentary system would reduce the size of the government. Thus, central government executives would have more relative influence and would therefore be able to pass significantly more legislation, Renzi and his supporters argue.

Kertzer, in fact, doesn’t believe the referendum is doing enough. In his opinion, the electoral laws, which give too much power to party leaders rather than Italian citizens, need to be completely revamped. As the laws work now, candidates are chosen by party leaders rather than the citizens, so whoever is elected is indebted and controlled by the party elite. There are also no laws preventing candidates from running in multiple elections, so when all’s said and done, the members of parliament “have very little relationship with the people they are supposed to represent,” said Kertzer. The upcoming referendum won’t address this problem at all.

A Career in the Balance

In April, Renzi tied his political career to the success of the referendum, claiming that he would step down if it did not pass. As such, the vote is no longer just an institutional question, it is a vote that could affirm the legitimacy of Renzi’s leadership. However, with some members of his own party, the rising anti-establishment Five Star Movement (Cinque Stelle in Italian), and the center-right looking for Renzi to fail, it is also possible that the referendum could send his political career crashing to the ground.

According to Urbinati, however, Renzi’s opposition has struggled to campaign effectively against the proposed amendment. This is largely because Renzi’s supporters in the Democratic Party control the three major Italian news networks that have largely slanted in favor of the proposal. Additionally, with mounting fear of Five Star, which has expressed anti-European tendencies, Renzi has the aftermath of Brexit on his side.

If the referendum fails, the government could be dissolved and Cinque Stelle would have a fair chance of winning a parliamentary majority, which could potentially lead to an Italian exit from the European Union. Realizing this risk, Renzi recently rescinded his promise to resign if he loses the vote, but Cinque Stelle could pressure him into stepping down anyway. “I think this would be terrible. [Cinque Stelle] is a protest movement that has been unwilling to do what any serious, politically responsible party would do in a multi-party system, namely, compromising and finding ways to work with others to benefit Italian society and the Italian economy,” said Kertzer.

Return to Ruins?

Amidst all of the conflict and controversy surrounding the referendum, a single fact remains: the current proposal, even if passed, would still leave Italians with vague governmental procedures and unfilled gaps. “It’s kind of odd having a referendum about this at all because it involves such complicated institutional questions that involve thousands of details. It’s one thing to vote on abortion or divorce … That’s pretty clear. This is far from that,” said Kertzer. For instance, the referendum does not explicitly say how Senate seats would be delegated among regions and parties, how the senate would function in its more lean form, and according to Kertzer and Urbinati, what exactly the body’s constitutional role would be.

Italians are being asked to define what their government and the constitution means to them. Whichever way the vote swings, the referendum will surely challenge the power and the stability of the Italian government, and it will no doubt make or break Renzi’s legacy in Italian history.

Image source: Wikimedia/Пресс-служба Президента Российской Федерации

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