Matteo Renzi’s gamble with democracy: the Italian constitutional referendum

Matteo Renzi.
Matteo Renzi.

On December 4th 2016 the Italian people will be called upon to vote in a referendum on the constitutional reform put forward by Matteo Renzi’s conservative and pro-austerity government. The topic is dominating Italian political life, because of the major impact the reform would have on the political and institutional life of the Italian Republic if approved, and because of the political turmoil that would follow if rejected.

Submitted by StrugglesInItaly on October 21, 2016

The focus on the referendum has quickly polarized the Italian socio-political world, allowing every major socio-political force to divert attention from its own flaws. The Government and the Democratic Party are facing growing popular opposition, due to the enormous gap between the trumpeted effects of policies and the real-life struggles of a growing number of people living in Italy, struggles caused by neoliberal European Union driven government policies. The Five Star Movement, despite recent electoral victories in Rome and Turin, is still struggling with its identity and structure, and the mediocrity of its MPs and local politicians is showing. Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, the Northern League and the rest of the right-wing parties see the referendum as a way of dislodging Renzi from power, only to get it back and apply the very same neoliberal policies. The various left-wing parties see the opportunity as a way of coming back to the national stage as a reliable and stable political force. The employers’ federation Confindustria is also favouring this national debate, since it’s conveniently diverting attention from diminishing salaries, labour rights and safety and increasing precariety, and employers’ corresponding enrichment.

The reform, written by both the Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and Minister for Constitutional Reforms Maria Elena Boschi, was presented to Parliament at the beginning of April 2014. This came as quite a surprise, because there was no hint of constitutional reform in the Democratic Party’s political manifesto for 2013 elections, nor in Matteo Renzi’s manifesto for the Democratic Party primary leadership election. Nevertheless, the Government presented the bill and from the very start showed little intention of real parliamentary talks. In fact, the talks and the votes were driven by the Government, who hurried the discussions along and blocked the opposition’s modification proposals, forcing the bill to pass by calling many votes of confidence. (According to Italian law, if a vote of confidence is lost it automatically means the end of the government. It is commonly used by governments as a way of forcing Parliament to pass bills.) Because of an internal rule, the Italian Constitution requires a referendum should a constitutional reform be approved by less than two-thirds in each house.

The reform rewrites roughly a third of the Italian Constitution, changing the role and composition of the Senate: its members would no longer be elected by the people but would be nominated by the regional parliaments, and chosen from among the members of these parliaments and the mayors of the most important cities. The Senate would continue to hold some legislative power but not as much as before. The reform would strengthen the lower Chamber of Deputies, giving it most of the legislative power and the absolute power to install or remove a government, which it previously shared with the Senate.

The effects of the reform would fit in neatly with the Italicum electoral law, one of the major reforms of the Renzi Government, passed before the proposed constitutional reform but with the same objective. This electoral law is heavily criticized because it removes from citizens part of their power to elect representatives, and shifts it to parties and their leaders. The law also gives a over-represented majority in the Chamber of Deputies to the winning party, under-representing the opposition parties. The result would be the election of a political class not chosen by the people, heavily biased in terms of real representation, and perceived as distant with no link to the constituencies.

The combined effect (the infamous combinato disposto) would be one never seen before in a democratic country: a one-party government with executive power and absolute control of legislative power, elected by a Parliamentary majority composed of MPs mostly nominated by the leader of the party. Such a government would be able to elect alone, against the rest of the Parliament, the President of the Republic and a large part of the CSM (Consiglio Superiore della Magistratura, Superior Council of the Judiciary), the judiciary authority. This is the real focus of the reform: to remove the system of checks and balances in order to change Italian institutions dramatically according to the neoliberal order and in favour of the European ruling class, as requested many times by both the European Central Bank in 2011 and JP Morgan in 2013.

These are not the only critical points of interaction between the Italicum and the proposed constitutional reform. In a series of posts, the journalist Alessandro Gilioli pointed out that the Italian people will vote on the future shape of the Republic’s institutions without really knowing what will happen next. The great uncertainty that hangs over the referendum is linked to three unresolved circumstances.

First of all, Matteo Renzi has in the past declared that he would resign and abandon Italian political life should he lose the referendum, but later went back on his word and today it is not at all clear what he would do.

Second, neither the constitutional reform nor the Italicum law will change the makeup of the Senate immediately, which means that this would be decided only after the next elections, by the parties present in the next parliament.

Third, the fate of the Italicum itself is very unclear. The law was passed at the peak of Democratic Party electoral success at the 2014 European election. The government tabled it on the basis of this result, sure that the PD’s electoral trend was upwards. But this was not to be, as after the 2016 administrative elections the situation was completely reversed. A reconsideration of the Italicum has been prompted by the growth of the Movimento 5 Stelle, the drop in Democratic Party total votes and defeats in the mayoral elections in Rome and Turin. Matteo Renzi, the government and establishment figures, including Republic President Giorgio Napolitano, have called for a revision of the law, with the shameful purpose of preventing political victory by Beppe Grillo’s M5S party. At present, no-one seems to know if and how the Italicum will change.

The political parties on the side of approving the reform (the ‘Yes’ side) are the ones making up the large centrist coalition that supports Renzi (with the exception of Mario Monti’s Civic Choice Coalition): the Democratic Party, other Christian parties and various little right-wing parties, mostly emerging from Berlusconi’s Forza Italia. The Employers’ Federation, Confindustria, and the CISL trade union side with the Government. The US government, the Party of European Socialists, the European People’s Party, and the European and international bank and financial forces are also supporting ‘Yes’, claiming that a ‘No’ victory would be even more disruptive than Brexit.

Other parliamentary and extra-parliamentary parties reject the reform: Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement, Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, the newborn Italian Left, the Northern League, the Greens, the right-wing Brothers of Italy, the left-wing Communist Refoundation Party. Other supporters of ‘No’ are the various groups of struggle all over Italy, who bear the consequences of and actively contest Renzi’s neoliberal and pro-austerity policies on housing, labour, education, economy, migration and foreign affairs. Also on the ‘No’ side are most institutional and constitutional lawyers and a wide number of organizations and committees, as well as the biggest Italian trade union, CGIL, which joined the ranks with some reluctance, due to its historical link to the Democratic Party. Even though based on different propositions and pursuing different objectives, they all see the referendum as a chance to force Renzi out of power.

The following weeks are going to be difficult and boring at the same time. The public is already tired of discussing technicalities and possible scenarios of the reforms and referendum, and discussion is quickly focusing on Renzi himself and easy-to-understand subjects. These subjects, such as government stability, the cost of politics, the speed of law-making, parliamentary breaks are being presented and pushed by the ‘Yes’ side and are too often being accepted as subjects for debate by the ‘No’ side.

If Matteo Renzi wins the referendum, he will hold much stronger political power, having annihilated all the opposition and won the political gamble Berlusconi failed to win in 2006. If he loses, he will be probably forced to resign from office, having shown his feebleness and incapacity to hold the government together and further enforce neoliberal and pro-austerity policies, such as those he has been enacting so far.

This would mean total political breakdown. After the fall of Mario Monti’s government the general election of 2013 produced a divided parliament which resulted in two unelected, large coalition, pro-austerity and neoliberal governments, just like Monti’s was. Since the fall of Monti the main aim of the European and Italian elites, helped by Republic President Giorgio Napolitano, has been to avoid new elections, probably out of fear of an M5S electoral victory. Instead they have installed large coalition governments, without popular consent or legitimacy but totally loyal to the European imperialist neoliberal project.

To win the referendum and to avoid new elections before 2018, Renzi, his allies and supporters have done and will do whatever is in their power: postponing the date of the referendum as much as possible; using the roles of prime minister, ministers and other institutional figures to publicize the reform as much as possible; and installing loyal-to-the-cause TV and other media directors to confuse public discussion with smoke and mirrors.

Original article from the Struggles in Italy blog.



7 years 6 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Steven. on October 22, 2016

Interesting stuff, I hadn't heard of this. Do you know what opinion polls are showing on it at the moment? I would have thought it would be very difficult for the government to get a Yes result, without a huge amount of media scaremongering of course (although you would have thought the scaremongering would be even less effective than the UK Brexit stuff, as really it just means preserving the status quo)


7 years 4 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Steven. on December 5, 2016

Update on this: the government lost, 60-40, or 70% turnout, so Renzi has resigned. Lolz

pretty much all of my Italian friends (not activists) supported the No side, primarily it seems for reasons of not trusting the government in general