Monday, 19 December 2016

'Referendum rocks Rome'

In the latest episode of the University of Birmingham's Political World View, Daniele Albertazzi speaks with Adam Quinn about Italy's referendum outcome. They discuss what it means for Italy's current state of politics and what it means for Europe.

Was the 'no' vote similar to the Brexit outcome?

Why did Renzi stake his career on this vote?

Is Italy pro-Europe or more Euro skeptic?

Is the Five Star Movement really run by a comedian?

Learn this and more from this informative episode:

Monday, 5 December 2016

IPSG Chair Prof. Jim Newell analyses the Italian Referendum results on the Independent:

"The NO vote in the Italian referendum had nothing to do with populism and everything to do with Matteo Renzi.
The NO side mobilised people on the left and right; populists and anti-populists; members of the liberal elite and those in less exalted circumstances"

The full article is available at this link.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Who’s afraid of the Em Five Es?

Ahead of Sunday's referendum, Prof. Jim Newell (IPSG Chair) reflects on the role and impact of the Five Star Movement in the post-vote scenario.

Who’s afraid of the Em Five Es?

It is widely believed that if Sunday’s referendum on constitutional reform in Italy is not passed, then comedian Beppe Grillo’s Five-star Movement (M5s) could cause considerable political, not to say economic, upset. The belief arises from the fact that the M5s wants a referendum on Italy’s membership of the Euro. And if Italy were to leave the Euro, it is suggested, then the EU itself would be placed in danger.

It is thought that if the No side loses then Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi will resign. A period of political uncertainty and turmoil will, so one story goes, put wind in the Movement’s sails, and fresh elections will see an M5s victory. Elections have to be held no later than early 2018.

But others have suggested an alternative, even more lurid scenario. According to this, Renzi wins. Fresh elections are held on the basis of the new electoral law that is linked to the constitutional reform. This puts the M5s in an even stronger position. For the law assigns 55% of the seats to the winning list provided it achieves at least 40%. If it doesn’t, then there is a run-off between the two most-voted lists, with 55% of the seats going to the winner at that stage. So according to this scenario, the M5s wins an overall majority. It is able to govern alone, without any need for a coalition. This causes even greater havoc by making an exit from the euro even more likely.
Neither scenario is at all plausible. To see this, consider first of all who the Grillini are.
The Five-star Movement was started in 2009 by Grillo and the web strategist, Gianroberto Casaleggio. He had the intuition that the Internet could be used as the basis for a new kind of party, one without organisation, money, ideology or headquarters. This encouraged Grillo to use his blog and the social networking site,, to bring people together to campaign on local issues and then field candidates for elections. So the Movement drew initial strength from the twin ideas of a new form of direct democracy and popular disgust with the political elites. This meant that it drew support from across the political spectrum. Therefore, its policies have always been an eclectic mix of the anti-establishment, environmentalist, anti-globalist and Eurosceptic. At the 2013 general election it came from nowhere to become the second most-voted party. Through ups and downs, its poll ratings have stood at around 30% ever since.

Its current ratings put it on 29.9%, the centre left Democratic Party (PD) on 31% and the centre-right parties on 28.3%. It does not seem to have suffered from outcries surrounding a number of controversial appointments by its recently elected mayor of Rome. Or allegations that activists have been involved in falsifying signatures on the nomination papers of candidates for elections in Bologna and Palermo. These incidents seem to fly in the face of its claim to stand for a new, more honest politics. But people vote for the M5s simply because it represents something different from a political class in whom vast swathes have virtually no confidence.
Since it draws support from all parts of the political spectrum, the fear is that in a run-off ballot it would sweep the board. For it would inevitably attract votes from two sources: its own supporters and those opposed to whichever of the parties, the PD or the centre right, it found itself up against.

But the electoral law might not survive in its current form. If Renzi loses, then the electoral law will have to be revised and the prospect of an M5s majority government will retreat accordingly. For the law’s operability depends on the constitutional reforms being passed and it is opposed by powerful groups from across the political spectrum. But even if Renzi wins, the law might still not survive in its current form. On 21 September, Renzi was forced to bow to pressure to support a parliamentary motion declaring a willingness to revisit it. Moreover, the law has been challenged before the Constitutional Court which is expected to deliver its verdict shortly after the referendum.

The profile of M5s activists and supporters casts doubt on whether it would be able to govern effectively. A vote for the M5s is a straightforward protest vote. Otherwise its activists and supporters are divided across the whole range of issues separating left and right. It is doubtful that such a party can remain cohesive when faced with the pressures of governing. With responsibility for making choices that can only benefit some while hurting others.

And its experience both in Parliament and in local government confirms that protest parties railing against ‘the system’ are as likely to find themselves being absorbed by it as they are to transform it once they experience the pressures of office. To become a party just like all the others. For example, Italian parliamentarians are notorious for jumping from one group to another during the course of a legislature. Currently, no fewer than 154 (or 24%) of the members of the Chamber of Deputies belong to a different group to the one they were a member of at the start of the legislature. Not surprisingly, then, the M5s now has 18 (or 17%) fewer members than the 109 Deputies it elected in 2013.

Many of the defectors have left because they came into conflict with pressures to behave as mere party delegates – pressures created by the new ideology of direct, ‘bottom-up’, democracy espoused by Grillo. And ironically, he has sought to impose this discipline from the top down – by the threat to withdraw from potential and actual rebels all entitlements to use the Movement’s brand, of which he is the exclusive owner.

So even if the M5s found itself in office after an election some time in 2017 or 2018, it would find itself uniquely badly placed to withstand the enormous threats to its unity that would derive from the market pressures, including capital flight and economic turmoil, its promise of a euro referendum would presumably bring.

And even if it were able to withstand such pressures, it might then find it difficult, if not impossible to hold such a referendum in the first place. For one thing, the Constitution prohibits the holding of referenda on laws authorising the ratification of international treaties, and the jurisprudence that has developed over the years has extended the prohibition to the laws that give effect to such treaties.

So in order to hold a euro-membership referendum it would probably first be necessary to secure a revision of the Constitution, and for that to be possible, it would be necessary to win two positive votes in each chamber of Parliament at intervals of not less than three months. With the constitutional reforms being proposed by Renzi, the obstacles in the way of achieving this might be greater than they would be currently. For hitherto, or at least until the change in the electoral law in 2005, the two bodies have tended to have very similar if not identical political majorities. With the changes being proposed by Renzi, these majorities would more than likely diverge.

But there is more. The support of less than two thirds of the members of each chamber in the second vote would make it possible for a fifth of the members of each chamber, or 500,000 electors or five regional councils to subject the proposed constitutional amendment to a confirmatory referendum.

So there might have to be two referenda before an exit from the euro could take place. And then, of course, the referenda would have to be won. In order to achieve that, the M5s would have to overcome their current uncertainty about what they would replace euro membership with. And they would have to find a way of persuading the 67% of respondents who currently say they favour continued membership.

Of course we live in rapidly changing times. But if forced to place a bet on it, I would put my money on there not being a euro exit any time soon – or at least not one engineered by the M5s.

Monday, 28 November 2016

The Italian Referendum: What should we expect after Sunday?

Ahead of Sunday's Referendum on Constitutional Reform, James L. Newell (IPSG Chair and Professor of Politics at the University of Salford) reflects on the crucial points of the reform, and future scenarios:

The Italian Referendum: What should we expect after Sunday?

James L. Newell
This coming Sunday, Italians go to the polls in a constitutional referendum. This has been widely dubbed as offering the stage for a third ‘popular revolt’ against the establishment following Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. Matteo Salvini, the leader of the right-wing populist Northern League, on receiving the news of Trump’s election was heard to exclaim: “Now its our turn!”
And the potential consequences of the referendum have often been painted in lurid colours with suggestions that it could bring the populist Five-star Movement (M5S) to power. The party has demanded a referendum on Italy’s membership of the euro. This could herald the break-up of the EU, it is said. On the left, it is pointed out that the proposed changes to the Constitution are massive. These, it is said, could lead to a reduction of political accountability and checks and balances that put in doubt Italy’s very status as a constitutional democracy.
The reality is much more prosaic and here’s why.
For one thing, the referendum won’t be a third revolt against ‘the establishment’ for the simple reason that it is very difficult to know who ‘the establishment’ is in this case. On the one hand, the reforms are being championed by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party (PD) and the moderate parties of the centre. On the other hand, they are being opposed by the parties of the centre right including Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia. Lined up against the reforms are also a minority in the PD, the parties of the left and the populist M5S under former comedian Beppo Grillo. So is ‘the establishment’ Renzi, who is pushing for the reforms as part of the promise, which brought him to power, to do away with vested interests? Or is it the populist Berlusconi and his even-more-populist bed-fellow, Grillo, who are defending the constitutional status quo?

So support for, and opposition to the reforms cross-cut the usual political divides. They also cross-cut the usual social divides. The proportions lined up on either side, do not differ much whether we are talking about the so-called ‘liberal elite’ of the well-educated in high-status occupations – or those in more modest circumstances.

And what of the reforms themselves? The two most high-profile proposals are, first, a change to the constitutional status of the Senate. This is to be stripped of its equal law-making powers with the Chamber of Deputies and turned into a revising chamber. And it is to be indirectly elected from among regional councillors and mayors. This, it is said, will improve the speed and efficiency of policy making by putting a stop to the endless ‘ping-pong’ of bills between Chamber and Senate until they can agree on identically worded texts.
The truth is that the speed of law-making in Italy compares favourably with other countries. Problems only arise when the two bodies have different political majorities as happened due to the electoral law that was in force between 2005 and 2014.
And the reforms may bring no improvement because they replace the existing, identical powers, with a range of legislative procedures depending on the type of bill. Combine that with the differences in the ways members of the Chamber and the Senate are to be selected and you get the following. The two bodies may express different political majorities much of the time. So lack of clarity about what legislative procedure is to be used, when, may encourage Senators to use this as a form of filibustering and lead to much time-wasting litigation before the Constitutional Court.
Second, linked to the reforms is a change in the electoral law, which will give a majority bonus of 55% of the seats in the Chamber to the list that receives at least 40% of the votes. If no list achieves this, there will be a run-off ballot between the two most voted lists. The winner at this round will get the majority bonus; the remaining seats will be distributed among the losers. This, it is said, will increase the likelihood that a single party ends up with an overall majority. Thereby it will increase the power of the executive together with government stability. But there is nothing to stop parties fielding candidates as part of a single list with others – and then reclaiming their autonomy, in Parliament, after the election. Such has happened at every election in recent years. Parties know that they can unite with potential allies at election time and then go their separate ways afterwards simply by blackmailing them: “I might not be able to win, but by running independently, I can make sure you lose!”
In any case, executive stability and the efficiency of law-making are not the main problems. Italy’s problems lie not at the point at which legislation is made but at the points where it is implemented – in inefficiencies in the public administration and the judicial system, and in adequacies in adherence to rule-of-law principles.
What, then, of the likely outcome? There is little doubt that it will be close and in that respect comparisons with Brexit and Trump are appropriate. Polls put the No side ahead by about 5% – but many are undecided and the polls do not take account of the choices of Italians resident abroad of which there are about four million: a sizeable chunk of the electorate.
If Renzi wins, then his authority will go up and he might be tempted to capitalise on that through early elections.
But early elections will not be possible before legislation has been put in place to give effect to the way members of the new Senate are to be selected. And there will probably have to be further discussion of the electoral law for the Chamber as well. In September he was forced to agree to a parliamentary motion declaring a willingness to revisit it and it has been challenged before the Constitutional Court.
So the electoral law may not survive in its current form, and even if it does, the outcome of an election in 2017 and 2018 will probably be far less dramatic than is assumed. On current poll ratings, likely winners are the PD or the M5S. The significance one attributes to this depends on how cohesive one judges them to be and this will depend on future political developments. It is an open question whether an M5S that draws support from across the political spectrum and has hitherto been a party of protest, would be able to remain cohesive in face of the pressures of governing. Its experience of governing at the local level suggests doubt is in order. 17% of those the M5S elected to Parliament in 2013 have already defected.

If Renzi loses, then having staked his future on the referendum outcome, he will probably resign. This will probably lead to the appointment of a technocratic government with the specific remit of securing parliamentary approval for a new electoral law, before the holding of fresh elections. I base this prediction on the thought that the legislature has only about fourteen months left to run; that for the parties such a government would represent a positive-sum outcome (none would win at the expense of others); that putting such a government in place would have the advantage of speed: assuming that a resignation on the part of Renzi sends shockwaves around Europe and the markets, President Sergio Matarella will want to resolve the crisis quickly.  
So the day after the referendum result is announced, do not wake up expecting to find the world turned upside down. Whichever way it goes, it will be followed by a period of uncertainty. Here again comparisons with Brexit are appropriate. In the world of politics things are simply much more complex than journalists and politicians too often like to make out.


Friday, 4 November 2016

Call for Papers: ECPR Joint Sessions 2017, Nottingham

IPSG members Giulia Sandri (Catholic University of Lille) and Antonella Seddone (University of Turin) are organising a panel on political leadership and democratic innovation during next year's ECPR Join Sessions of Workshops at the University of Nottingham. 

Further details about the panel (including abstract) can be found at this link.

Giulia and Antonella welcome paper proposals from scholars conducting research on primaries, intra-party democracy and their impact on political elites
Proposals can be submitted through this page. The submission deadline is on the 1st of December. If you wish to participate in this panel and submit a proposal, or if you have any query, please do contact Giulia and Antonella.

IPSG co-convenor Daniele Albertazzi contributes to new book on Populist Radical Right

IPSG co-convenor Dr Daniele Albertazzi's article (with S. Mueller) 'Populism and Liberal Democracy: Populist in Government in Austria, Italy, Poland and Switzerland' is included in Cas Mudde's new edited book The Populist Radical Right: A Reader, which will be published by Routledge in 2017.

More info on the book are available at this link.

Thursday, 3 November 2016


The Italian Politics Specialist Group has recently launched their Twitter account. 
Follow us @PSA_IPSG to get updates and engage in discussion on recent developments in Italian politics and across Europe, our annual conference, PSA activities, funding opportunites and more! 

Italian Political Science Review Special Issue: "The 2014 European Parliament Elections: Representation, Euroscepticism, Populism and the Economic Crisis"

IPSG members Arianna Giovannini, Laura Polverari and Antonella Seddone have recently edited a special edition of the Italian Political Science Review, entitled "2014 European Parliament Elections: Representation, Euroscepticism, Populism and the Economic Crisis". 

The collection originates from a one-day conference which took place at the University of Strathclyde, and was kindly hosted by the EPRC, in January 2015. The event was organised by the guest editors under the aegis of the IPSG, with the support of the PSA specialist groups fund. 

The Special Issue is avaialable at this link, and includes the following articles: 

Arianna Giovannini, Laura Polverari, Antonella Seddone

Marinella Belluati

Stefano Rombi 

Gabriela Borz

Fabio Sozzi

Pedro Riera and Luana Russo

Manuela Caiani and Paolo R. Graziano

Italian Referendum on Constitutional Reform

The Italian referendum on constitutional reform that will be held on the 4th of December will be a turning point in Italian politics, and may have profound repercussions not only within the country but also across Europe.

In these blogs, originally published on the LSE EUROPP Blog, eminent scholars, who are member of the IPSG discuss the key issues at stake:

Fabio Bordignon (University of Urbino):
"Will Italy's constitutional referendum mark the beginning of a Third Republic?"

Gianfranco Pasquino (Emeritus Professor of political science at the University of Bologna and member of the Accademia dei Lincei) and Andrea Capussela:
"Italy's constitutional reform is ill conceived and can be safely rejected"

Monday, 11 July 2016

IPSG Annual Conference, Turin 13-14 January 2017

Call for Papers:

A conference organised by the Political Studies Association’s Italian Politics and Anti-politics Specialist Groups,with the support of the Faculdade de Ciencias Sociais e Humanas, Universidade Nova De Lisboa, and hosted by the University of Turin, Department of Culture, Politics and Society

13-14 January 2017 (lunch-time to lunch-time)

University of Turin, Luigi Einaudi Campus

European democracies are under pressure. The rise of alternative left and right political parties and new populist parties, discontent with traditional ‘slow’ political processes and growing preferences among citizens for internet and social media-driven movements and the increasing success of ‘antipolitics’ rhetoric have seen politicians across European liberal democracies struggle to retain their relevance in an increasingly globalised, fast-paced social and economic world. Moreover, European leaders are facing increasing difficulties to deal with a growing confluence of crises, including an unprecedented influx of refugees, discontent at harsh austerity measures imposed on EU member states, and more broadly dissatisfaction with the European integration project. This is clearly manifested in the growth of euro-sceptic parties and anti-EU feelings even in traditionally ‘Europhile’ countries, and in the recent ‘Brexit’ referendum in the UK. The dynamics and forms of these pressures are multidimensional and compound: they have different roots and have taken different paths across Europe, and yet they converge in challenging political structures and the very institution of democracy. 

The aim of this conference is to offer a distinctive approach in capturing such complexity, inviting contributions from scholars across Europe that will:

—  reflect on the causes, symptoms, effects, and long-term consequences of the so-called ‘democratic crisis’;

—  develop explicitly comparative insights into the European ‘democratic crisis’, within and between countries as well as at the transnational ‘European’ level;

—  offer an opportunity to ‘redefine’, in the light of current changes and challenges, the key concepts (e.g. anti-politics, politicisation/de-politicisation, populism, political participation, and the very idea of ‘democracy’) underpinning the debate on ‘democratic crisis’.

Against this background, we welcome contributions that address (but are not necessarily limited to) the following issues looking at how they vary across Europe, and emerging challenges and ways forward:  
  • Political parties and their adaptive reactions with a focus on populism, anti-politics and detachment from politics, personalization and changes in party’s relationship with citizens, as well as party’s organizational changes and reforms.  
  • Institutional changes in times of ‘democratic crisis’ with a focus on responsiveness, responsibility and accountability, institutional reforms, multi-level governance and centre-periphery cleavages. 
  • The EU after the crisis – with a focus on EU politicization, Euroscepticism, dynamics of interaction between EU and domestic agendas, the future of the integration process, role of external and internal pressures (e.g. economic, migration and security crises). 
  • Reshaping the idea of democracy – with a focus on new forms of political participation, digital democracy, citizens engagement, media and new media,  as well as on more theoretical aspects of the debate, looking at how key concepts/motifs underpinning this latter are being redefined in the current context.

Paper proposals (max. 300 word) should be submitted by Monday 3 October 2016 via email to Arianna Giovannini, Laura Polverari and Antonella Seddone.

We are delighted to announce that the event will open with a keynote speech by Professor Simona Piattoni (University of Trento), which will assess the theme of the conference. Scholars from the Department of Culture, Politics and Society at the University of Turin will also contribute to the event delivering an interactive workshop on ‘Democracy in Action’, which will draw on and bring insights from the work they have conducted in the city of Turin and across the region.

Professor Alfio Mastropaolo (University of Turin) will open a round-table discussion with invited international speakers entitled ‘European Democracy Under Pressure: lessons from comparative analysis’ at the end of the second day. Policy-makers, practitioners, and civil society groups as well as journalists will also be invited. 

Attendance to the conference will be free of charge but registration will be required (details on how to register will be provided in due course).

Friday, 8 July 2016

Brexit and Italian politics: parallels, warnings and impacts *

Jim Newell & Arianna Giovannini

Italian elites’ traditional esterofilia – the tendency to compare Italy unfavourably with other polities and to look to foreign models for solutions to the country’s political problems – looks very interesting in the aftermath of Brexit. Always held up as a model of political stability, home to a civic culture of which Italians could supposedly only dream, British politics must look very different now, in light of the referendum outcome – as must the quality of British and Italian democracy in relative terms. It seems ironic, considering what has happened, that Anglo-Saxon authors could once write books and articles with such snobbish titles as ‘Republic without government’, ‘Sick man of Europe’, to name just a few, and that these titles could be largely accepted by Italian elites as embodying appropriate judgments of the relative quality of Italy as a democracy. For what the referendum outcome has shown is that British democracy shares all of the problems traditionally seen as supposedly distinguishing features of the Italian case, if anything to a far greater degree. Thereby, it has revealed a number of stark warnings for Italy’s political elites, as well as having had several unwelcome impacts. 
By way of preliminaries then, let us say that if Italian politicians have always been seen as unusually prone to behaviour that is self-serving and mendacious, then the reader might want to reflect on the fact that Brexit has essentially been the consequence of the actions of a prime minister using a referendum for which there was no public demand to patch up a division within his party, taking a massive political gamble and losing. And it has been the consequence of the actions of a man who headed up the leave campaign not because he seriously believed in the case he was making or believed that he would get the outcome he has now got, but because he went to the same private school as the prime minister and wanted his job. On the scale of selfishness, this beats the clientelism of a Christian Democratic clan leader or the ad personam laws of a Silvio Berlusconi by several miles.Second, the outcome is tightly connected with the failures over many years of a political class to counter in an effective way a rising tide of anti-political sentiments which, through this referendum result, has revealed itself to be at least as strong as anything we have so far seen in Italy, supposedly the ‘home’ of ‘anti-politics’. Especially in areas like Wales, which has greatly benefitted from EU funds and is usually perceived as a centre-left, progressive region, a vote for Brexit was a vote ‘of rebellion’. Against the establishment at large, and in particular against Westminster politics – which, in spite of devolution, continues to treat Wales as an ‘appendix’ of England. Similarly, the Remain vote in Scotland shows that the political and social divide between Holyrood and Westminster is deepening – another sign of detachment from ‘traditional politics’. Moreover, the fallout from this – the possibility of a second Scottish independence referendum which, on current polling figures, looks like having every chance of being successful – reveals that, if the ineptness of Italy’s political elites has helped make the fortunes of parties such as the Northern League with their ambitions for northern autonomy and at times secession, then the ineptness of Britain’s elites has raised a threat of national disintegration which Umberto Bossi and Matteo Salvini have never been able to imitate even remotely.

Thus, the significance of the Brexit vote is hard to overestimate. It has been not just a vote against Europe – put bluntly, it has been an opportunity for ordinary citizens to ‘stick it’ to the political elites. The ‘people vs. caste’ argument has been stirred and was exploited in all manner of ways by the Leave campaign, who portrayed the referendum as a chance for ‘ordinary, decent citizens’ to ‘take back control’. This had a strong appeal especially among voters who feel disaffected with the current political establishment (either because they have been hit by the Conservative government’s austerity measures or because they have been let down by Labour), and are the losers of globalisation. In other words, Europe was only part of the issue, but has been the target of a protest vote aimed at punishing the political class generally. This should come as an especially potent warning for the Italian Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, in view of the referendum on Constitutional reforms that will be held in October.

There is a supreme irony to all of this, and it is that if, true to the traditions of esterofilia, Renzi has sought to imitate British prime ministers – he has been famously compared, and has indeed compared himself, to Tony Blair, for example – then he may suffer a fate similar to the current one. The risk arises from his new electoral law for the Chamber of Deputies, which embodies the principle of a run-off ballot between the two best-placed candidate prime ministers in the event that none achieves 40% at the first round of voting. The law was originally conceived of as a means of dishing the Five-star Movement (M5s) given that its political project and support base render it non-coalitionable – but the recent local elections have revealed the enormity of the gamble it embodies. In only twenty of the 154 councils holding run-off ballots did the M5s make it to the second round. But where it did make it, it won all but one contest: as a significantly-sized, anti-political, catch-all party, where it is faced with a single competitor, it becomes almost unstoppable because it is able to attract the ballots not only of its habitual supporters but also of the supporters of almost all the parties opposed to the candidate, whether of the right or the left, it is seeking to defeat. Such situations parallel closely that of the Brexit referendum and the perception of it as an opportunity to cast a vote of protest against the establishment. Italian voters behaving the same way in a run-off involving the M5s would produce an outcome that might be thought to be essentially equivalent to UKIP winning an overall majority in the House of Commons.

For the time being, the M5s, strengthened by its recent local election victories, has been able to use the outcome to gain a fresh hearing for its demand for a referendum on Italy’s membership of the Euro (which, though we do not have the space to go into it here, has indeed created several headaches for Italian economic policy makers in recent years). Meanwhile, considering the ‘populist shift’ of the Northern League under the leadership of Salvini, and looking at his comments in the aftermath of the vote, it is likely that the party will use Brexit as another means to stir ‘feelings of anger’ against Brussels and the political elites in Italy (such as the Democratic Party) who support the EU. Salvini has had no hesitation in declaring that “Europe has now the opportunity to get rid of the EU” and that Italy too should have a referendum on EU membership itself. In practice, though, this is not feasible, as the Italian constitution does not allow the holding of referenda on international treaties – and membership of the EU falls into this category.

These are not the only worries the Brexit vote has caused Renzi. Perhaps more importantly, Brexit, as we have seen, as brought short- (and possibly long-) term economic uncertainty and volatility in financial markets from which Italy has suffered along with the other states in Europe and elsewhere. And here, incidentally, we encounter another paradox in that if one of the battle cries of Leave campaigners was that the referendum offered British citizens the opportunity to throw off their subjection to decisions over which they could exercise no democratic control, then Italian citizens might argue that the fallout from Brexit raises questions about whether, from a democratic point of view, the referendum itself has a case to answer; for, with the collapse in the prices of shares in Italian banks, the outcome has effectively forced the Italian government to prepare a €40 billion rescue package for its financial system – with very unwelcome consequences for public debt, already running at 134% of GDP.

It is perhaps not surprising, under these circumstances, that the Italian government has joined Germany and France in insisting that Britain’s actual withdrawal takes place sooner rather than later, this in order to avoid a prolonged period of uncertainty which would be anathema to trade and investment. Indeed, economic considerations have had a high profile in Renzi’s comments on Brexit – which have highlighted the risks, such as the plummeting of the British Pound and the immediate negative reactions of the market, associated with leaving the EU. He has thus used the economy as a warning to underline that, on the one hand, Italy cannot not afford such risks and, on the other, that the country is stronger in, and will remain committed to, the European Union. In his rhetoric, Renzi has also interpreted the UK referendum as an opportunity for the remaining members of the EU to enact reforms and improve the organisation from within.

All in all, then, Brexit has been revealing of the similarities and contrasts between British and Italian politics, while bringing important lessons and having significant impacts. Both David Cameron’s EU referendum gambit, and the strategy currently being pursued by Renzi, reveal that politicians today are chancers: thrust into the limelight by the mediatisation and personalisation of politics, they become celebrities who must take risks in order to survive. The fact that, in a situation of general uncertainty and extreme apprehension on all fronts we have a British prime minister who has announced his resignation, no effective opposition party (as Labour is currently imploding), and a governing party that is split from top to bottom reveals the almost complete lack of capacity of the British parties to provide leadership at a time of crisis – and brings to an Italy that supposedly had the weaker parties the lesson that difficult times, and crucial decisions, require a strong and coherent lead, and a cohesive political system. Whilst it is not realistic to think that the country will have a vote on the EU, the UK referendum shows that growing anti-political sentiments, mixed with populist arguments, economic uncertainly, and a growing divide between the political establishment and the citizens can end up proving a very dangerous mix. And that referenda can and, indeed, do offer an opportunity for the electorate to voice their dissent and dissatisfaction, irrespective of what is at stake in the ballot questions. Thus, in the aftermath of Brexit, Italian political elites have much to reflect on, with the possibility that the most significant impact of the vote will be felt in October, when Italy has its own referendum – a referendum, ironically, that is designed to make possible that cohesion and strength of leadership which the UK system is currently so sorely lacking.

This article was originally published on CONGRIPS' website

Addressing the democratic crisis Italian style: the constitutional referendum of Matteo Renzi*


By J.L. Newell
In revealing the extent of disaffection from mainstream politics, the UK’s Brexit referendum has been a manifestation of the crisis of democracy in Europe – which is also manifested by the referendum to be held in the autumn in Italy. Part of the latest attempt of Italian elites to get to grips with popular malaise through institutional overhaul, it is, like Brexit, the work of a politician seeking to enhance his political fortunes by taking a massive political gamble. And since Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has said that he will resign if the vote goes against him, ironically, he could meet the same fate as David Cameron – while the referendum’s effects could, as we shall see, have consequences in their own way as dramatic as those of Brexit.

At stake in the referendum are two major sets of reforms. One concerns the electoral law for the Chamber of Deputies and the proposal for a run-off ballot between the two most voted lists in the event that none achieves 40%, with the winner being assigned 340 (or 54%) of the 630 seats, and the losers, provided they have won at least 3%, sharing 278. The remaining 12 seats are to be assigned to the overseas constituency for Italians resident abroad. The second, a constitutional reform of the Senate, limits the body’s legislative powers; removes from it the authority to compel the resignation of governments by passing votes of no-confidence, and changes its composition from 315 directly-elected members to 100 members, five chosen by the president of the Republic, 95 elected by the regional councils from among their members and local-authority mayors.

The proposals are intended to restore public confidence in Italian democracy by making possible more efficient and effective government. The electoral law, the argument goes, will guarantee a majority to a single list, the hope being that this will eventually result in single-party majority governments, since unlike the previous law, only single lists are allowed to run, not coalitions of lists. It will not formally be voted on in the autumn as it has been embodied in a piece of ordinary legislation (law 2015/52) which came into force on 1 July 2016. But it has, in a sense, ‘forced’ the proposed reform of the Senate, which has hitherto had legislative powers in every respect equal to those of the Chamber. This was thought to render law-making cumbersome by requiring bills to shuttle back and forth between Chamber and Senate until identically-worded texts could be agreed by each; and it implied that a reformed electoral law for the Chamber would have to be accompanied either by a corresponding reform for the Senate, or else by reform of the powers and functions of the Senate itself. So in practice, this autumn’s vote is a vote about the electoral law as well; for if the referendum is lost, then the two chambers of Parliament will be in the unsustainable position of having identical powers of legislation and executive oversight but two very different electoral laws, so that  2015/52 will have to be revised or repealed.

Opinion polls in recent months have tended to suggest a clear referendum victory for the Prime Minister – though with much less certainty since Parliament gave its final approval to the reforms on 12 April and since, therefore, the issue has risen up the agenda and the two sides in the campaign have begun to square up to each other.


Lined up on the ‘Yes’ side are the Democratic Party and its governing allies, most notably, the New Centre Right and the forces of the centre; on the ‘No’ side, the parties of opposition, most notably, Forza Italia, the Northern League, the Left, Ecology and Freedom and the Five-star Movement (M5s). In the referendum campaign Renzi will also be opposed, more or less explicitly, by an assortment of critics within his own party. Opponents are aware that to support the proposals is to enhance the fortunes of Matteo Renzi and that in the world of mediatised and personalised politics, to enhance the fortunes of Renzi is to prolong their own exclusion from power. During the process of parliamentary deliberation of the reforms, each party approached them – in a context in which every other did the same – from the point of view of its own political interests. The divergence between these interests made it impossible to come up with a shift away from the status quo that could be supported across the government-opposition divide. Consequently, the governing majority is being left on its own to convince the public of the desirability of reform, with a consequent decline in the certainty of victory.
Speaking in favour of victory is the fact that in some respects the referendum will be rather similar to the only two other constitutional referenda to have been held in the history of the Italian republic, those of 2001 and 2006. These too, broadly speaking, pitted centre left against centre right, government against opposition, and both were won by the centre left. Now, as then, the reform in question is in fact a wide-ranging package of measures, not likely to be clearly understood by many voters; so now, as then, the superior organisation of the centre left on the ground, in the localities, will give it a greater capacity to mobilise voters on a not-very-salient issue. Speaking against a Renzi victory is the fact that now, unlike then, the centre left is divided and the vote is likely to take on the significance of a referendum on the Prime Minister himself.

Recent events at home and abroad suggest that Renzi’s decision to frame the referendum in this way could backfire badly. The outcomes of local elections on 5 and 19 June suggested that voters were driven by feelings of anger against the ‘caste’ of professional politicians – including Renzi, the end of whose ‘honeymoon’ as premier has to an extent led him to come to personify the hated elite citizens believed, during his ascent to the premiership in 2013 and 2014, he had vowed to destroy. Insisting that the contests were purely local matters, not a vote about him, Renzi ensured that that is precisely what, to a large extent, they became. Renzi thus finds himself in the position of having framed the autumn referendum as a plebiscite on a premiership that has just been weakened by a poor local-election performance and which could, as a consequence, become weaker still: finding it even harder than hitherto to keep the lid on that part of the turbulence in his party that is driven by opposition to his electoral law, he might find himself caught up in a vicious circle – declining authority and capacity to govern producing declining popularity and declining authority, and so on.
Abroad, Brexit has demonstrated as clearly as anything could that when European voters are presented with the task of voting on complex issues, difficult to understand, they use it as an opportunity to vent their frustrations with austerity and feelings of political inefficacy by casting a vote of protest against the political establishment – especially when their anger is stirred by the propaganda of anti-political parties, of which the M5s, like UKIP, is a classic example.
So with everything to play for, what, from the point of view of the substance of the proposals, actually hangs on the outcome? The electoral law provides that if not competing independently, parties will at most be able to be part of a combined, but single list with others. The aim is clearly to improve the cohesiveness of the winning majority by preventing it from achieving power through the construction of the large unwieldy coalitions designed to win elections but incapable of governing. Yet the variable majority premium of up to 14 percentage points, together with the 3% representation threshold, gives parties an incentive to reach short-term agreements for the fielding of combined lists – whose symbols can include those of the constituent parties – while doing nothing to prevent them from re-claiming their autonomy again, in Parliament, once the election has taken place. This has been a feature of all election outcomes since the 1990s party-system transformation; and, given the depth and variety of the divergences separating the Italian parties, it seems naïve to think that the expectation of a reduction of party-system fragmentation is an especially realistic one. Enhancement of the power of ordinary citizens seems equally uncertain. Preference voting has been introduced in order to address one of the main criticisms of the law it replaces, namely that the presentation of long, closed, lists deprives voters of the power to choose their representatives. However, the first candidate on each list is automatically elected if the list gets at least one seat. Therefore, depending on the number of parties able to win more than a single seat in each of the 100 electoral districts, the reform may bring little change in this respect either. Finally, the reform seeks to enhance the representation of women by providing, among other things, that in each region no more than 60% of the leading candidates fielded by a list can be of the same gender – but of course whether the desired effect is achieved will depend on where, precisely, parties choose to field candidates of each gender, in winnable or non-winnable districts, and on the choices of voters.

The law could, however, have one very dramatic and, for many, very unfortunate consequence; that is, it could bring about a single-party M5s government. The reason is this: as local elections involving run-off ballots clearly demonstrate, when the Movement makes it through to the second round it becomes virtually unstoppable: as a significantly sized, anti-political catch-all party, in situations where it is faced with a single competitor whether of the right or the left, it is able to mobilise the ballots, not only of its habitual supporters but also those of the supporters of more or less all the parties opposed to the one it is trying to beat. Ironically, one of the considerations driving pursuit of the new electoral law to begin with had been the thought that it would help exclude the M5s from power as its support base and political project render it ‘non-coalitionable’; but it is now beginning to dawn on Italy’s political elites that the law actually assists the Movement, and many would see a legislative-election victory for it as being somewhat akin to UKIP winning an overall majority in the House of Commons.

In seeking to strengthen the executive and increase the speed of national-level policy making, the proposed constitutional reforms detail the legislative powers of the Chamber and Senate. In areas such as constitutional and electoral law (among others), the two will continue to legislate jointly – with the Chamber having the final say in still other areas, subject to the right of the Senate to propose amendments. The widely held view that bicameralismo perfetto brings sluggishness to the legislative process reflects a misunderstanding. The existence of two chambers with identical powers may actually increase the speed of law-making by making possible the consideration in a given period of time, of twice the volume of legislation as can be considered by a mono-cameral parliament (say). The work of the one chamber is only likely to be an obstacle for that of the other when their partisan compositions differ. So the reforms, if passed, may not bring improvement, but worsening: When uncertainties as to the relative powers of the chambers arise, these will have to be sorted out by their presidents; in areas where they will continue to the enjoy equal powers, partisan differences in their composition may create difficulties; in areas where the Senate’s formal powers are to be limited, the expression of dissent may in certain circumstances nevertheless enable it to continue to wield considerable political power.

Thus whether or not the problems of Italian democracy will come any closer to resolution as a result of the referendum seems highly uncertain. It might fail and even if it is successful, the reforms may fail to have the expected impact. And they might fail to resolve Italy’s problems for two other reasons. First, the reforms also include alterations to the distribution of law-making competences between national and regional levels; modifications to the procedures for electing the president of the Republic and for the holding of referenda, and several further changes besides. Constitutionalists tend, understandably, to be critical of referenda that ask citizens to cast a single vote on such a wide range of contrasting measures. The consequence, in the present case, has been a radical simplification of the terms used to frame the debate, such as suggestions that the vote is a matter of being for the ‘new’ or the ‘old’ Italy, and so on – which in turn has intensified the division and conflict between the two sides. And with conflict and division so deep, the risk is that the proposed changes come to be treated as just like any ordinary legislation to be amended or abolished just as soon as its opponents succeed in winning an election. But second, they might bring the M5s to power. What then? Governing would force it to make difficult and potentially unpopular choices it does not have to make as a protest movement. The onset of disillusion might be rapid. So while it is hazardous to make predictions in politics, my guess is that the symptoms of democratic crisis in Italy will persist for some time following this autumn. As for Renzi, victory might conceivably enable him, for a while at least, to pose as the father of a new constitutional settlement; defeat will probably mean that his political career is over.

*this article was originally published on the PSA Political Insight blog