ANOTHER DECISIVE REFERENDUM

By Paulo Giro

On Sunday December 4th, the Italian people will be called to vote on the third constitutional referendum in the history of the Italian Republic. The constitutional bill was proposed by the Renzi government in 2014 and approved by absolute majority of Parliament in April earlier this year. Public debate has intensified since, polarising constitutional law scholars and politicians alike into rivaling campaigns. While supporters of the bill believe it may effectively address the instability that has crippled the political system since the end of WWII, streamlining decision-making by parliament while effectively cutting costs, critics dismiss the bill as an anti-democratic attempt to consolidate power in Government.

The question asks to reform the appointment and powers of Parliament, as well as the separation of competences between State, Regions, and other administrative entities. In primis it asks for the overcoming of perfect bicameralism, ending the ping-pong in legislative procedure between two chambers of identical power. According to the proposal, the Lower Chamber would remain the primary legislative body elected via a newly imposed electoral law, the Italicum, that would ensure a stable majority and thus governability. As with the reform more broadly, the Italicum has come with great controversy. The Government pushed it through Parliament with a motion of confidence in 2015, and it has since been a key dividing factor in the months leading to the referendum, especially within Renzi’s own Democratic Party. Minority factions and parties from both ends of the spectrum have criticized the law’s majority bias, election thresholds, and use of single party lists as an attempt to concentrate power in a single party and leader. Renzi has addressed these concerns and has vowed to review the Italicum if the referendum were to pass, yet many remain skeptical about his statement.

“The undecided population will swing the result either side.”

Following the reform of the Senate, the Upper Chamber would shrink from 315 to 100 seats to represent Regions and Municipalities with limited legislative powers, no veto, and no power to call a vote of no confidence in the Government. These will no longer be directly elected, but appointed indirectly by Regional assemblies (95 seats) and the President of the Republic (5 seats). This measure is combined with other budget cuts. The abolition of provinces and the consultative National Council for Economics and Labour (CNEL) are intended to further reduce overall institutional operating costs.

According to the Government these measures would amount to around 500 million Euros in savings, to be allocated to poverty alleviation initiatives, even though critics have deemed this an outrageous overestimation, claiming that savings would actually only entail 10% of the proposed figure. The imposition of indirect appointment of Senators has also been criticized for undermining popular sovereignty and fueling the marginalisation of public opinion within the political system.

The last main issue is the concurrent competences between central and local governments. The bill asks to revise an article of the Constitution outlining the fundamental norms that regulate local competences, with the general aim of reducing regional autonomy. This article was already modified with the constitutional reform of 2001, when regions were granted exclusive control over financial and organizational matters. Poor management of public resources, sluggish development, and external budgetary pressures since the last referendum have led the Government to ask for these competences to be returned to the state’s exclusive control, reverting the effective federalization of competences for greater central control over national expenditure.

To date, polls have suggested the race to be too close to call, with roughly a third of voters still unsure what box to check off on voting day. As public debate intensifies, recently turning violent in occasion of an anti-reform manifestation held in Florence, it is clear that the undecided population will swing the result either side. No less an indicator of public opinion than the outcome of the referendum proper, voter turnout percentages will prove whether this historic initiative was successful in its attempt to uproot the population from its political indifference.

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