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