Isaac Kight

Renzi’s Referendum

Italian Prime Minister (PM) Mateo Renzi has staked everything on constitutional reform. We will soon know whether this enormous gamble will pay off.

Italian Prime Minister Mateo Renzi CC BY Buy Tourism Online, Flickr
Italian Prime Minister Mateo Renzi (Times of Israel, February 17, 2014/CC BY Buy Tourism Online, Flickr)

Renzi has proposed a number of reforms to the Italian Constitution which he believes are necessary to bring change to the country’s fractious politics and oft incoherent policies. These reforms centre on the reduction in size and power of Italy’s upper house: the Senate. The lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, is the house that chooses the government but the Senate’s approval is currently required. The Senate also has a power to hold votes of confidence in the Prime Minister.

Renzi has staked his government on the outcome, saying that he may resign if the reforms do not pass. Italy currently suffers from very high debt and great fiscal irresponsibility. Many reforms have been held up as legislation is bounced back and forth between houses. A critical issue in this election has been that over millions Italians have left the country to other parts of the EU, notably over 600,000 to the UK, and other continents in order to find work. Their votes will be key to deciding the outcome of this reform.

Proponents of the reform have been touting the reduced costs of a smaller Senate and the greater efficiency of the government. In the previous election, austerity was a key issue and these reforms will help to make it possible. Austerity is critical for Italy, whose national debt is now perilously high at nearly 133% of GDP.

Some on the right are opposed to the reform preferring the current “checks and balances” approach of having two coequal houses. Unfortunately, this leads to a lack of accountability as each house accuses the other of being the obstruction.

Walter Bagehot, whose “wise chat” about the British Constitution defined the essence of parliamentary government, was strongly opposed to the notion of an upper house of equal authority. He noted that it while it is offered as a simple fact that any federal system must have an upper chamber of coordinate and equal legislative power to represent the states or provinces, as if the very statement made it so; in fact, there is no real justification for this. There is simply no good reason why there should be an equal upper house.

Stability Verses Euroskepticism

More than one commentator has noted the overtone of Euroskepticism in the “no” campaign. There are several reasons for this. Euroskeptics and nationalists mutually share the goal of an end to Renzi’s government, a goal that a rejection of the amendments would help to achieve. This lot also objects to weakening the Senate and local governments. Any change to the Italian Constitution, in their eyes, is simply un-Italian.

In reality, Italy needs a change. Italian governments come and go with such frequency that it seems as if no sooner has name been painted on the door to the Prime Minister’s office, it is time to scrape it off for a new government. As The Economist Explains notes, since 1946 when the current Italian constitution came into existence, there have been over sixty separate governments each lasting on average about a year. In recent years, Silvio Berlusconi’s and Romano Prodi’s governments managed to last a little longer, but were unable to bring substantive reform.

Italy needs a stable policy. It needs a government capable of lasting out the current term (until 2018). Italy needs a coherent fiscal policy and desperately needs economic reforms. Whether this is started by Mateo’s Renzi’s government or a future government is not truly relevant. Italy needs reform, and in order to achieve it, there must be a government that can last more than a year or two at a go.

Those trying to tie this vote to the Brexit vote or Donald Trump’s upset win as an anti-establishment or anti-European Union (EU) are missing the point of the exercise. Irrespective of whether Italy chooses to remain in the EU or whatever its future, the country desperately needs a structural reform along these lines.

The truth of the matter is that under these reforms it would be much easier for the Italian right and Euroskeptics to form a future government in which they might hold a referendum on Italia Nostrum, an Italexit. Such a government would also benefit from greater longevity and a greater capacity to enact its proposed reforms. Italian voters would benefit from greater accountability: the government would no longer have the excuse of obstruction by the upper chamber to shield it from responsibility. Voters could more easily hand power to responsible governments that enact the will of the voters and deny power to those who are irresponsible or are not serving the voters.

Details of the Reform

The Senate will have a legislative veto only on specific matters, such as territorial subdivisions of Italy, EU participation and ratification of EU treaties, referenda and popular consultation. Otherwise, the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, can override the Senate.

The Senate is currently made up of about 315 elected members and five lifetime members which include former presidents of Italy. Under the reform, 95 Senators would be elected by the local government councils, and five more would be appointed by the President to seven year terms. All former Presidents would continue to serve as lifetime members of the Senate. The Senate will not be dissolved when the lower house holds early elections. The Senate will also lose the power to hold votes of confidence in the Prime Minister. Presidential elections by the joint houses of Parliament are also simplified under the reform.

Provinces will be dissolved save for autonomous provinces. Most provinces have already been reformed into metropolitan governments. Some powers are to be devolved from the national level to local governments. The national government will still have power over subjects of national importance.

The reform abolishes an advisory economic council (CNEL).

The reform alters how justices of the Constitutional Court are chosen. The court will review all election laws prior to every election as a protection for minorities political parties.

Italian voters will also gain certain powers of initiative to call for legislation and referenda.

Declarations of war will also require an absolute majority vote of the Chamber of Deputies, rather than approval of both houses.

About the Author
Isaac Kight earned his MBA at Bar-Ilan University in 2010. He served as a volunteer for the Knesset State Control Committee from 2009 to 2010. Isaac has a broad experience of Jewish community and religion in the US and Israel.