European Union Policy Studies

Italian Constitutional Referendum 2016


Caterina Paolucci, James Madison University

An important referendum will be held in Italy on December 4th 2016. The outcome will be crucial for several reasons. Voters are asked to approve a significant reform of the Italian Constitution, which is dating back to 1948.

What is the reform about?

Firstly, it modifies the bicameral nature of the Italian legislative body, the parliament. Today, the two chambers, the house of deputies and the senate, have equal powers, so bills must go between them until they are approved in identical form. The constitutional reform bill would drastically curb the power of the senate, not only reduce the number of senators from 315 to 100 but also reduce their influence on the law making process. Most importantly, the vote of confidence to install a new government would be cast only by the chamber of deputies. The senate’s political function would be almost completely scrapped; it would become a chamber representing regions and cities, composed by regional representatives and mayors.

Secondly, the reform changes the legislative procedure, simplifying and streamlining the legislative process, to produce better norms in a shorter time. Today there is no certainty about the timing to pass a law, and there is no way for the executive to push its bills through parliament. This would change with the new constitution. The government could introduce bills that have a set date to be discussed and voted upon. At the same time, the quality of laws is very low. This is due among others to the fact that law decrees can be amended to include provisions that have nothing to do with the topic of the decree, leading to completely inconsistent pieces of legislation. This has been made unconstitutional by the reform bill.

Thirdly, the reform tackles devolution of powers to the regions, which has caused many problems in the recent past. Since 2001, regional governments have overlapping responsibilities with the state, in areas such as environment, infrastructure, transport, production and distribution of energy, labor laws. These policies will be re-centralized, and become again exclusive competences of the state, favoring an adequate governance of crucial national policy sectors. In addition to these changes, other parts of the reform address the elimination of the Provinces, and bodies such as the consultative National Council for Economics and Labor.

Finally, there are some relevant changes to the provisions on the direct participation of citizens in the decision-making process. The 50.000 signatures required for a citizens’ initiative bill to be received by parliament will be increased to 150.000, but parliament, unlike today, will be obliged to discuss it. Moreover, when a referendum is requested by more than 800.000 citizens, it will only require a reduced turnout to be valid (today turnout must be higher than the absolute majority of the electoral body). Similar reforms were attempted already several times, since the 1980s, but the political forces, who always said that reforms were necessary, were never able to agree and pass any actual project.

The current reform reflects the debates Italy has had for decades: the reform of bicameralism and the law making process, the reform of the competences of the regions, the reduction in the number of MPs. It is significant in particular where it makes the relationship between parliament and the executive more efficient. The executive will be able to pursue the program it has presented to the voters. It will be easy to judge it at the end of the legislature. Democracy will therefore be enhanced, not reduced. The competencies of the regions will be clearer, and the local governments and cities will be represented in Rome in a much more structured and transparent way than they are today. Democracy will therefore be enhanced, not reduced. The competences of the regions will be clearer The most important reform is the streamlining of the law making process, which will bring Italy on par with all the other European democracies, will give the country more credibility at the European and global level, allowing it to address current challenges in a quicker and more transparent way. Italy would be able to assert itself more, and defend the interests of its citizens much better than it can do today with its slow, weak and inefficient political system.

Do voters know the reform?

Up until early November, only around a third of the voters knew about the specific contents of the reform, while the rest of the electorate was only vaguely aware of the referendum’s issues. One month before the vote, all opinion polls showed that the No vote was leading, with a margin that oscillated between 2 and 6 points. Undecided voters were projected by different pollsters to be between 16 and 26%. Turnout was projected to reach barely 50%. Numbers have changed as the referendum date has approached, with more voters interested and involved in debates, but the latest polls available (November 18) showed still a strong lead by the No vote at 54% while the Yes vote lagged behind at 46%, with a turnout of 57%. One has to note, however, that the campaign has intensified significantly since November 19, and the last two weeks have been quite frantic on both fronts. The result could therefore still vary, in one or the other direction.

How are voting intentions distributed in the population?

The majority of the 18-34 olds are projected to vote against the reform (60%). The majority of the over 54 on the contrary will vote in favor (52%). Beyond age, it is party allegiance that explains the variance: the majority of Renzi’s Democratic Party voters (67%) will vote yes, while the opposition party supporters, right and left, will vote no: 61% of Grillo’s Five Star Movement (M5S), 65% of the Northern League, 64% of the Italian Left supporters. The Forza Italia electorate has understandably more doubts, since their party was originally one of the proponents of the reform: only 39% would vote against, while 35% of its supporters were still undecided. In a nutshell, what we see is a polarization of the attitudes toward the reform, linked on the one hand to a generational system/anti-system divide, and on the other a government/opposition one. Young voters are those that are currently more antagonistic towards the system, and represent the backbone of the Five Star Movement. The lack of jobs, a sluggish economy and the perception of a future without perspectives pushes many young people to refuse a reform which, if anything, goes to their advantage because it eliminates the political relevance of the senate, a body which is elected by older voters (25 years for the active electorate) and composed of representatives that have to be older than 40. Therefore, we can say that many young people will vote against their own interests, simply to punish the government for the bad economic situation. But a victory of the “no” vote will worsen the economic situation because if the referendum fails what can be certainly expected is a destabilization of the government, political and economic uncertainty, and according to some analysts even financial turmoil and a stock market plunge.

The reform is fully legitimate from a constitutional procedural perspective. It has already been approved by parliament 6 times (3 readings by the two houses of parliament) with 4500 votes and millions of amendments (presented but not all discussed). It was born out of a vehement request in 2013 by the then head of state Giorgio Napolitano, who accepted to stay on as president only in exchange for a clear and shared reform path undertaken by parliament. It was supported by a large majority (a grand coalition), the so-called Pact of the Nazareno between Berlusconi and Renzi, which brought together the center-left and center-right behind the changes which are now embodied in the constitutional reform bill. Berlusconi has already tried to push through a reform in 2006, which was much more radical and profound, as it modified the system to bring it closer to a presidential one. That reform was defeated in a referendum. When the Pact of the Nazareno was broken by Berlusconi, the situation changed. Renzi and the forces supporting his government remained the sole proponents of the reform, while the bulk of the right disengaged. The M5S had always opposed the pact and the reform, while the left saw Renzi increasingly as its main adversary, whether within the party (internal left faction) or outside of it (Sinistra Italiana). Renzi’s Democratic Party, allied with a fraction of the Forza Italia party that had seceded to stay in the government, was able to bring home the constitutional reform, with all the votes mentioned above.

Nevertheless, since the final vote saw the approval only by an absolute majority of the parliament, not by a 2/3 majority, the constitution envisages the possibility of a referendum to confirm the reform. It is not mandatory. The government decided to proceed and call it. This is a little awkward. But an understandable gamble, to legitimize a leader that does not have (yet?) a popular mandate to rule (Renzi was not heading the Democratic Party during the 2013 general election. Shortly thereafter, he conquered the leadership of the party, became party secretary and subsequently prime minister). Given the high stakes, and the potential implications of a defeat (fall of the government, political chaos, economic hardships, financial crash), Renzi said he would resign if the reform put to the vote will not pass. And here we are.

What will happen?

The polls have been quite consistent in showing a clear victory of the No vote. Which is not surprising, given the social and economic situation. People are angry and disenchanted, so they are leaning towards a “negative vote” almost for the sake of punishing a disappointing political class, with the evident paradox that they would vote against a reform which would improve the political system, its functionality, and its output, to their advantage. The clearest connotation of a “vote against” was suggested by Beppe Grillo, the leader of the Five Star Movement, who at a rally recommended his supporters should “vote with their guts, not their brains”. In case of a negative outcome, the country, including mostly those that voted against, and in particular the younger cohorts that are attracted to the M5S, will pay a high price: higher interest rates, hence higher cost for mortgages, further decline of foreign investments in the country, therefore less jobs, a long period of political instability, even deeper economic stagnation, higher taxes, a more difficult future for the youth.

However, in the last two weeks the campaign has become hectic, with the prime minister frenetically touring the peninsula, and the Yes Vote Committee investing heavily on communication on all kinds of outlets, including social media. This is a battle Renzi cannot risk losing. The question is, will this hammering campaign, concentrated in the last few weeks, be able to conquer the vote of the undecided? Because these are the voters who will make or break the reform and Renzi’s chances.

Will Renzi resign if the referendum does not pass?

This is quite likely. A new general election can be expected in 2017. However, Italy does not currently have an homogeneous electoral law for the House of Deputies and the Senate. The electoral law was scrapped by the High Court, which declared it unconstitutional in 2014. The Parliament has passed a new law for the House but not for the Senate, expecting a positive outcome of the referendum. Therefore, if the Renzi government falls, we will need a caretaker government to pass a new electoral law, at least for the Senate, if not for both houses of Parliament, before going to new elections. The nightmare scenario, of course. Hopefully, Italians will think very hard about the consequences of their vote.

Published: Thursday, December 1, 2016

Last Updated: Wednesday, December 7, 2016

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