The Italian referendum is another struggle between political insanity and establishment politics: but let us look at the facts for once!

Not much talked about but next Sunday’s referendum in Italy is seen as another clash between political insanity and establishment politics. The Referendum will take place after at least six months of arguments spelt by both sides on why the Italian people should support either camp. So much was the noise about what would happen afterwards that debates about the actual content of the constitutional proposals was most of the time absent.

Only a few times have I heard actual arguments being made either in favour or against certain pieces of the reform of Italy’ constitutional charter. The constitutional reform affects 47 out of 139 articles. The crucial steps are two: reform of the Senate and of the so called “Titolo V”, or the section of the Italian constitutional charter that deals with the relationship between State and Regional governments. The “perfect bicameralism”, a dysfunctional system that since 1948 has granted two chambers with equal decision-making power will be brought to an end. But the senate will not be abolished all together. Instead, it will be replaced by a Bundestag-like Senate, whereby a 100 senators (compared to today’s 315) will be periodically chosen by Regional governments and Provincial Autonomies. The Senate will have more limited powers, mainly to do with local authorities, linguistic minorities (Italy has German, French and Slovenian minorities in the North borders) constitutional matters and international treaties. On all other lawmaking processes, the senate has a right to oversee and make recommendations, but not to interfere with the lower chamber.

NO supporters would argue that Italy is second to Germany in terms of the amount of laws being passed by both chambers. And also, that the Senate will no longer be elected by the electorate. And so that this reform would be unnecessary and paving the way to authoritarianism.

True the first objection, but how many times have bills ended up in years of deadlock? And how many times do bills with an original intent completely get deviated from what they originally subscribed to because of the ping-pong between the two chambers? Just to mention two cases, the recent bill legalising same-sex marriage was stuck in the Senate, thus limiting LGBT+ to civil partnerships. Secondly, legislation criminalising police torture. Italy is one of the few EU countries not having a law punishing police abuses amounting to torture. This has allowed top policemen to walk free or very little affected after the chaos of the 2001 Genoa anti-G8 demonstrations, where thousands were blessed, hundreds arrested unlawfully and subject to abuse under detention, and one person killed by police fire. The Ruling party PD’s proposal to legislate against torture is stuck in the senate because of the opposition, surprisingly of many NO supporters (like Berlusconi’s Forza Italia).

Also, while the Senate will not be elected directly by the citizens, Regional’s and Provincial autonomies’ assemblies (not governments) will appoint them thus representing the parties voted in local elections. When Berlusconi abided by the “Patto del Nazareno” with Renzi, he forced his MPs to opt for such option rather than having each Regional government (not assemblies) appointing their one, mainly because the ruling PD controls many Regional authorities. Surprisingly, he now supports the NO camp and has recently criticised the reform on the above.

There are points in which the proposed reform is controversial, such as limiting the power to declare war to the chamber of deputies; heightening the bar of “popular legislating initiatives” from 50 000 signatures to 150 000.

However, those commas were neglected in favour of a populist interpretation. I even remember during one event somebody compared the new Senate with the British House of Lords, without considering the PM and the Shadow PM appoint Lord peers and not the local authorities.

Such facts have hugely been overshadowed by a national debate pitting “establishment” figures from Renzi’s PD and all the other coalition parties, above all Interior Minister Alfano’s Nuovo Centro Destra, against everyone else. From the far left “Sinistra Italiana” to the Far right Lega Nord, Fratelli d’Italia, Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, Grillo’s M5S and, eventually, rebel members of the PD. Thus, like Brexit, it will be a choice motivated more by feelings rather than careful consideration of the text.

If one were to look at the specific politics of the vote, the left has not much sway over the NO coalition, which Renzi defined an “accozzaglia” (heterogeneous rubble, to be nice). Interestingly, the far right, often not shy in associating itself with the country’s fascist past, has decided to support the NO, which on the Left is supported with the slogan of “reclaiming the anti-Fascist constitution”. The fact is that the far right gave the referendum the anti-establishment spin way before the very fractured Italian left could hope to gain from it.

On the other hand, Renzi contributed to the personalisation of this referendum. By tying his political destiny to the constitutional referendum, he has thrown the country into uncertainty. Also, by describing his reform as an attempt to innovate and to make reforms “quicker”, he has done his camp no favour. Ridiculing those who will choose the NO as populists and demagogues has in no small way contributed in shaping the general view this is an anti-establishment vs. establishment battle. The Italian PM in the last month has even tried, desperately, to get the vote of those living abroad by sending us special letters talking of the standing our country reached in the International arena. While some remarkable success were certainly achieved, such as Italy’s recent veto on the EU commission budget and the following turnaround of Juncker, who claimed Italy must not be left behind in dealing with the asylum-seekers crisis, the letter did not tell us a comma about the constitutional reform. Plus, Renzi’s economic failures are evident. Italy has the second highest debt in the Eurozone, its youth unemployment is the third worst in Europe after Greece and Spain. Growth is stagnant. And the fact many unpopular European leaders are rallying to support the constitutional reform is not making the YES case look better. German Finance Secretary and hardline CDU Wolfgang Schauble, not really popular in Italy, is the last of many.

With those premises in fact, NO is likely to win. Repubblica, a newspaper whose board of editors generally supports YES, has actually commissioned a poll where the NO was given a 7% lead. Many people, including myself, would accuse Mr Renzi’s failure to make a case for the YES and resort to his adversaries’ equal amount of fear-mongering and propaganda.

In his “The Extreme Centre”, (2015, London: Verso), Tariq Ali argues that similar attempts to reform anti-fascist constitutions in souther Europe were promoted by international financial institutions in order to step up neoliberal reforms. I generally agree with some bits of his arguments with regards to other countries, but why would Mario Monti, someone who introduced the “Budget Balance” in the Italian constitution back in 2012, clearly an attempt to subdue the state to neoliberal reforms, suddenly support the NO camp then? has he become all of a sudden against neo-liberalisation? However, both sides have contributed to such reading

Whatever the result, the country on the 5th December will still be the same: fractured and deeply dissatisfied by the government. But this has nothing to do with the constitutional proposal. And whichever way we vote, we should try to look at it and to come out with an informed judgement.

Political insanity or establishment politics? Neither of the two. Let us instead look at the proposal and let us make a decision on them rather than else. I made mine, I hope make theirs.

About the Author
Giacomo Paolini was born in Rome, Italy and has been living in the UK since 2012, first in Durham, then in London. He is increasingly involved in Israel-related activities over the past three years. Besides that, he is a student and a political activist.