Matteo Renzi facing ‘Brexit’ moment as Italy votes on reform

Some fear Renzi’s plan could move the country closer to an effective oligarchy

Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi: In recent months, as opinion polls have sometimes shown the No vote in front, he has pulled back on commitment to resign in face of defeat. Photograph: Remo Casilli/Reuters

Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi: In recent months, as opinion polls have sometimes shown the No vote in front, he has pulled back on commitment to resign in face of defeat. Photograph: Remo Casilli/Reuters

 

It has been called “Italy’s Brexit”. Prime minister Matteo Renzi warns “there won’t be another chance” like this for Italy for the next 20 years.

Even if, in the end, Italy’s forthcoming constitutional reform referendum may not have dire consequences for the European Union, it could prove a watershed moment for its main sponsor, the dynamic 41-year-old Renzi.

Within weeks of taking office in February 2014, following a Democratic Party (PD) palace putsch, Renzi had begun an ambitious reform programme, presenting constitutional and electoral reform Bills to parliament, passed on “confidence” votes.

That process comes to a defining moment on December 4th when Italians are asked to say yes or no to the proposed constitutional reforms, which failed to secure the two-thirds majority in parliament needed to secure their enactment automatically.

A Yes vote would severely curtail the powers of the upper house, the senate, to bring down governments and stall legislation. To the outsider, the idea of radical institutional and constitutional reform in Italy probably seems a no-brainer. Is Italy not the country which has had a bewildering 63 governments in the last 70 years? Does not Italy have a two-house parliamentary system of perfect, time-wasting symmetry?

Is it not time to abolish the senate, reduce the number of parliamentarians and cut costs? Do not central and regional governments have a series of overlapping, contradictory powers and responsibilities?

At first glance, the answer to all the above has be a resounding “yes”. However, as Italy prepares for a hotly contested, autumn referendum campaign, it is by no means clear which way the vote will go.

Little Big Horn

Northern LeagueForza ItaliaFive Star Movement

Some of this opposition such as that of Forza Italia and the Northern League seems like political opportunism. But some also appears based on genuine concern that Italy’s democracy and constitution, painfully put together by the Constituent Assembly of 1946-1948, could be undermined by the reforms. In that sense, Renzi is daring to tinker with the greatest sacred cow of modern Italian political life, namely the constitution.

So, what are the objections? For a start, the heart of the reforms concern the senate. However, rather than simply abolish the upper house, the new legislation transforms it into a 100-person (down from 315) chamber of town mayors and regional councillors, “assigned” rather than elected by universal suffrage.

Second, the new non-elected senate would retain some ill-defined legislative powers in relation to regional government. And the lower house chamber of deputies would remain its expensive 630-strong self.

Then too, there is the matter of “political stability”, much emphasised in recent days by Renzi. Even this could be misleading. While it is true Italy has had 63 governments in the last 70 years, the days of “revolving door” executives led much more to corruption and inefficiency than to instability.

Mussolini-style dictatorship

Critics such as constitutionalist professor Gustavo Zagrebelsky argue that the two reforms create the conditions for “a swing from democracy to oligarchy”. In particular, Zagrebelsky points that, thanks to the “blocked list” system proposed by the Italicum, two-thirds of deputies would be “nominated” by party leaders rather than elected by voters.

In December last year, Renzi said he would resign if his reform referendum was rejected. In recent months, as opinion polls have sometimes shown the No vote in front, he has pulled back on that commitment. In truth, there are many important players, including investors, financial markets and the EU, who are much more worried by the potential impact of a Renzi resignation than a Renzi referendum defeat.

A referendum defeat, however, as pointed out by US ambassador to Italy John Phillips recently, could send a negative signal.

The outside world might just be tempted to conclude that Italian constitutional/institutional reform is the original Sisyphus task. The more you roll the rock up the hillside, the faster it comes falling down again.

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