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