The constitutional referendum could be about to undermine Italian democracy


Italy has a long history of attempted but never implemented constitutional reforms. The upcoming referendum on September 20th-21st will ask voters to confirm or reject an amendment to the Constitution regarding the number of MPs in both Chambers of the Italian Parliament. Currently, Italy’s Parliament consists of 945 elected MPs – 630 Deputies and 315 Senators – representing around 60 million citizens. In comparison, the British Parliament has 1,427 members consisting of 777 unelected Lords and 650 elected Commons (about the same size as Italy’s lower Chamber). If successfully implemented, the new amendment would bring down the numbers from 945 to 600 (400 Deputies and 200 Senators). This reduction threatens to spark several problems including underrepresentation and weaker plurality due to the difficulty some small parties could face in winning seats. As voters – particularly young adults – are increasingly disillusioned with politics, the proposed amendment would further widen the distance between Italy’s political establishment and its public.

For those who may not be familiar with the workings of the Italian political institutions, Italy is a parliamentary republic, unlike countries such as France and the United States. Neither the President nor the Prime Minister are elected by the people: the former is elected by Parliament, the latter appointed by the President following what can sometimes become unnecessarily long talks between political leader; after the last general election in March 2018 that resulted in a hung parliament, talks went on for nearly three months.

This system sounds complicated to most people and the majority of Italian citizens support some form of modification. Each party has its own ideas about how political institutions should be reformed. In general, right-wing parties have often argued in favour of a French-like presidential system, whereas left-wing parties prefer a reduction in the number of MPs along with a revision of the functions of the two Chambers; currently, both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate have the same powers and functions.

The reduction on which the Italians are called to express their vote is at the core of the anti-establishment 5 Stars Movement’s agenda. Since the Movement was founded by the millionaire comic-turned-politician Beppe Grillo (whose performance at the Oxford Union provides just a taste of his exuberant rhetoric style), it has campaigned to eliminate the so-called ‘privileges’ of the political class by implementing a digitalised and cost-effective direct democracy. For those of us who are skeptical of digital companies, this sounds like a dystopian nightmare. I am not willing to entrust my data to the likes of Google or Facebook, let alone my democratic rights to a privately-owned online platform. The good old paper ballot will do.

According to the 5 Stars Movement, ‘democracy online’ would reduce how much is paid to MPs, their staff, and their pension. The party (wrongly) argues that these costs are a waste of money that goes into the pockets of a small elite when citizens can run the country as a collective without the need for representatives. It is in this framework that the reduction of MPs is to be placed.

The reform will reduce the authority of the whole Parliament, rather than strengthen its role in Italian politics. Time is forever tight in an increasingly fast-paced democracy of the 21st century: urgent legislation often carried out through executive decrees, coupled with overworked MPs would make parliamentary debate just impracticable. Soon it would be said 600 MPs are too many and so on and so forth – until perhaps the very idea of Parliament is deemed ‘inefficient’.

Since the last general election in March 2018, the 5 Stars Movement has been part of two different majorities, creatively termed Yellow & Green or Yellow & Red to reflect the colours of the political parties – yellow being the 5 Star Movement, green the alt-right Northern League, and red the centre-left Democratic Party. Both governments, presided by PM Giuseppe Conte, included the reduction of the number of MPs in their programmes; Parliament approved the amendment with an almost unanimous 553 ayes out of a possible 630. Aside from a few individual dissidents, the major parties are now campaigning to get the amendment approved by the people in the upcoming referendum.

However, there are reservations from the centre-left Democratic Party, who would like to match the amendment with a new electoral system in order to guarantee a fair representation of all territories. One of the most compelling reasons to reject this modification is that some regions would be unjustifiably underrepresented. For instance, the Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol region (1 million inhabitants) in Northern Italy would elect 6 Senators, whereas the Abruzzo region (1.4 million inhabitants) in Central Italy would elect only 4 (out of the current 7) which equals a 40% cut.

Furthermore, claims that this modification will guarantee more stable majorities and a cut in public spending are either inaccurate or unfounded. By reducing the number of MPs to 600, Italy would save approximately 60 million euros per year – “one free espresso for each Italian.” As much as Italians love their coffee, it is not worth giving up our political representation for an espresso. As for claims of stabler majorities, fewer MPs does not mean better MPs. Politicians need to have a responsible, selfless approach to legislation – as far as I am aware, no constitutional modification can enforce that.

What is apparent is that party leaders would find it easier to pass their agendas with fewer MPs. Some voices are not even trying to hide that: 5SM’s Manuel Tuzi, MP unabashedly claimed that following this reduction “our parliament will be easier to control.” Unlike in the realms of Westminster, there is no such thing as a Party Whip in Italian politics and therefore MPs cannot be as reliably ‘persuaded’. Furthermore, the Italian Parliament is engineered to include a wide spectrum of voices and limit the scope of power of the executive. Indeed, in 72 years, Italy has had 66 different governments in just 18 parliamentary terms up to a maximum of five years. During the fascist regime, Benito Mussolini eliminated Parliament, establishing a consulting body with no real power. When the Republican Constitution was written after WWII, it therefore set out to design a strong Parliament, introducing several instruments to make sure that the democratic institutions of the country could not be threatened again. Today, most political commentators would agree that democracy in Italy has now been consolidated and the country needs a more modern and more effective Parliament. However, this will not be achieved by removing a third of the Members of Parliament – as 5SM and other major parties now claim.

The most recent opinion polls indicate an overwhelming 70% of Ayes from the public. If, as it seems, the referendum confirms the constitutional amendment, it would be the first change since 1963 – when the current number of 945 MPs was introduced. Previously, between 1948 and 1963, the number of MPs was calculated at each general election based on the population: one Deputy for every 80,000 inhabitants, one Senator for every 200,000 inhabitants. However, this would be the seventh attempt at reforming the composition of the two Chambers in the last 25 years. Two out of these seven attempts were stopped by constitutional referenda in which voters rejected Parliament’s decision. The last constitutional reform was rejected in December 2016. A fairly decisive 59% of Noes from the popular vote forced the then Prime Minister Matteo Renzi to resign after three years at Palazzo Chigi.

Mr Renzi’s project included not only a reduction of the number of Senators but also modifications to the role of the Senate. Crucially, the constitutional reform put forward in 2016 took a holistic approach to improving the country’s outdated political institutions: a reduction in MPs would have been met with a new electoral system that, coupled with the federal-style Senate, did not risk undermining representation. Any future constitutional reform in Italy must avoid the superficiality of the Five Star Movement’s proposals and instead follow a more reasoned approach. Renzi’s reform was not perfect – but nor was it a machete blow to Italian democracy itself.

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