ITALIAN CONSTITUTIONAL REFORM – A POLITICAL EARTHQUAKE

Like us, Italians are no strangers to political controversy. While Italian voters aren’t facing a general national election, they will be asked to approve ambitious constitutional reforms this year. These seem at least as controversial and momentous as our presidential election.

The proposed reforms are intended to reduce fragmentation that allegedly hampers the operation of Italian government, making it more stable and efficient and less expensive.

Like the U.S., Italy has a two-house national legislative body—a Parliament consisting of a Senate and a Chamber of Deputies. The most important proposals reduce the powers of the Senate, which now has the same powers as the Chamber of Deputies, and keep the Senate from impeding the passage of new laws. The proposals are lengthy and complex; key features include:

1. The Senate’s power would be drastically reduced. Only certain types of laws would require the Senate’s concurrence to go into effect, such as those pertaining to participation of Italy in the EU (e.g., ratification of EU treaties) and protection of linguistic minorities. As to other laws the Senate’s role would be generally consultative—they would go into effect with approval only by the Chamber of Deputies. The Senate would have general oversight of local, not national issues.

2. The Senate would no longer be able to bring down the executive government by a vote of “no confidence.”

3. Senators would not be elected directly, but rather by regional councils and mayors, though the President could appoint up to 5 senators and ex-Presidents would be senators for life.

4. The number of senators would shrink from 315 to 100. There’s a proposal to use the claimed 500 million euros a year of related savings to increase pensions for the poorest pensioners and fund antipoverty programs.

5. Italian political regions would have less power vis a vis the national government, including in areas such as the environment, transport and energy.

The proposed constitutional reforms would go hand in hand with an already-passed new electoral law for the Chamber of Deputies. By way of summary, under that law, if a party or alliance of parties gets at least 40% of votes, through a winners’ premium it automatically gets 340 of the 630 seats in the Chamber of Deputies. That’s designed to increase the stability of the government and reduce the number of times Italy gets a new Prime Minister—quite often in recent history! Constitutional reforms were approved by a majority in each of the Chamber of Deputies AND the Senate. (YES—the Italian Senate voted to reduce its own powers and numbers! Let’s send our legislators to Rome not for a vacation but for a lesson in humility!)

Proponents such as reform-minded Renzi and his center-left Democratic Party argue that these reforms will make Italian government less costly and more stable and efficient.

Opponents say among other things that these reforms will strip away checks and balances put in place after World War II to prevent the rise of a dictator such as Mussolini. Opponents include the increasingly popular, anti-establishment, euro-skeptic Five Star Movement party (“M5S”). It’s now the second-biggest party in Parliament and this year won mayoral elections in Turin and Rome (the latter of which has its first female mayor).

A “no” vote could have major repercussion. Prime Minister Renzi has staked his political career on these reforms and said that he will resign if the referendum fails. That could lead to political upheaval and gains for the Five Star Movement.

Voters, some of whom may not fully understand the proposed reforms, could view the referendum vote as a chance simply to say “yes” or “no” to Renzi as Italy’s leader. Italy is in a fragile economic recovery after several years of a deep recession, which as typically has not helped the popularity of those in power. Its unemployment rate and government debt are viewed as relatively high, and its banking sector as fragile. Some commentators fear that a “no” vote could result in damage to the Italian economy, and sour investor sentiment toward the country, which has the third-largest economy in the euro system.

Stay tuned! The outcome seems quite uncertain. Italy’s big referendum likely will take place on a Sunday between October 2 and December 11.

In the meantime and thereafter (regardless of the outcome!), enjoy the NON-political aspects of Italian life, and take a breather from stormy American politics, by getting involved at Sentieri. Take a class and/or come to our activities. Ciao!

By Jack Piliponis

For more information on Italy’s proposed constitutional reforms and the related political scene, please see the following sources, which Sentieri gratefully acknowledges:

“Italian constitutional reform, 2016,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Italian_constitutional_referendum,_2016

Newell, James, “Italy’s looming referendum is giving PM Matteo Renzi sleepless nights,” The Conversation, August 15, 2016, http://theconversation.com/italys-looming-referendum-is-giving-pm-matteeo-renzi-sleepless-nights-63844

“Italy’s Renzi prepares for stormy autumn,” The Local, August 14, 2016, http://www.thelocal.it/20160814/italys-renzi-prepares-for-stormy-autum

“A Referendum on the Italian Government’s Future, Analysis,” Stratfor, August 8, 2016, https://www.stratfor.com/analysis/referendum-italian-governments-future

Adonopoulos, Giulia, “Referendum costituzionale 2016: votare Si o No? I pro e contra della riforma,” Forexinfo.it, 4 Agosto 2016, https://forexinfo.it/Referendum-costituzionale-2016-cosa-votare-si-o-no-come-funziona

“Italy’s referendum is ‘not like Brexit’: Renzi,” The Local, July 12, 2016, http://www.thelocal.it/20160712/italys-referendum-is-not-like-brexit-renzi

Albanese, Chiara, and Follain, John, “A Prime Minister, a Referendum, and Italy’s Turn to Get Worried,” Bloomberg, July 4, 2016, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-07-04/a-prime-minister-a-referendum-and-italy-s-turn-to-get-worried

“Italy’s reforms, old problems and new perspectives,” Mediterranean Affairs, May 16, 2016, http://mediterraneanaffairs.com/italys-reforms-old-problems-and-new-perspectives

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