Renzi goes All-In: A Quick Guide to the Italian Referendum

“Everything needs to change, so everything can stay the same,” wrote Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa in his masterpiece “The Leopard” in 1959. More relevant today than ever before; this statement perfectly depicts Italy’s current situation. In a period of political turmoil, monopolised by the imminent constitutional referendum, few things have changed in the country – the public’s inability to take a stance and both its decay and dismay are not among those.

Italians will be asked to make one of the thorniest decisions since the 1994 general elections on whether to change a stagnant system, most prominent in the aftermath of WWII, or keep a conservative, but “safe” constitution; the crucial episode that marked Silvio Berlusconi’s rise to power.

Italy’s Camera dei Deputati

What the ‘yes’ side stands for

The referendum question comes straight to the point, asking whether citizens are willing to subvert the so-called “perfect bicameralism”- dismantling the Senate, one of the two Chambers of the Italian legislative system.

As of now, in fact, the Senate has the same power of the Camera dei Deputati, the other’s parliamentary Chamber. This dualism is causing several delays, since when one of the Chambers makes some changes, a law proposal needs to be discussed again in both the Senate and the Camera dei Deputati. Besides getting rid of this annoying ping-pong, the reform is claimed to cut the expenses, halving the number of Parliamentarians, and make the legislative system quicker.

Instead of the actual form of Senate, Matteo Renzi, Italy’s PM, has proposed to set an innovative Chamber, representative of Italy’s biggest metropoles and regions. This new institutional organ, deliberately inspired by the German model, would act as an intermediary between the government and the local institutions, lightening the Camera dei Deputati’s load and making peripheral areas heard.

Supporters of the ‘yes’ side

Varied and politically distant souls are supporting the constitutional change. Mr. Renzi is the leader of the coalition with a wide range of support: from the right-wing, moderate NCD (Nuovo Centro Destra), to the majority of Renzi’s PD (Partito Democratico) and the most radical left-wing factions, such as SEL (Sinistra Ecologia e Libertà). Even the authoritative former President of the Republic Giorgio Napolitano has expressed his support.

Giorgio Napolitano and Matteo Renzi

What the ‘no’ side stands for

On the other hand, Renzi’s constitutional reform reveals problems that are thought to call off all its positive attempts at modernizing the system. Firstly, the new constitution has been hugely criticised for its language, considered inappropriate and particularly arid for an institutional text. Emblematic example of that is Article 70, originally made of 9 words and now turned into a Decalogue of 483 words, which should outline the Senate’s new tasks. The reform would not therefore ease the procedure, potentially creating even more confusion.

Moreover, by cutting out the Senate, the reform would give great power to the Camera dei Deputati, which will become the executive centre of Italian politics. Given that Italy has had 63 governments in 70 years, this may mark the end of the country’s political instability. However, with the current electorate law, the winning party at the election would gain an overall majority able to make the winning coalition stronger than ever before in the Parliament. Thus, the reform is claimed not to rightfully represent parliamentary minorities, hence taking a turn for the authoritarian. Lastly, the proposed region-representative Senate would take away time from mayors’ and all the regions’ representatives involved in it, as there would not be enough time to simultaneously be Members of the Parliament and members of a local authority.

Supporters of the ‘no’ side

Among the opponents, the nationalist Movimento Cinque Stelle (Five Stars Movement) is taking the tougher stance. In particular, its leader, the comedian Beppe Grillo, has started a crusade against Renzi and the ruling class, having identified the referendum as crucial to subvert the political status quo and call on new general elections. Supported by a group of constitutional experts and jurists, among whom is worth naming Gustavo Zagrebelsky, who signed a petition in favour of the ‘no’. Also the most socialist component of Renzi’s PD and Berlusconi’s Forza Italia are opposing the reform.

Beppe Grillo – Leader of Movimento 5 Stelle

The Polls and Renzi’s personalisation of the campaign

As of now, the polls clearly show the ‘no’ side is ahead. However, it is worth mentioning the huge amount of hesitant voters who will either lean toward the ‘yes’ cause or abstain from voting, according to most of the pollsters. Many argue that if the turnout ends up to be more than 55% of the electorate, the ‘yes’ has concrete chances of winning the fight. In this context, Mr. Renzi is trying not to repeat mistake made by Cameron in EU referendum. Initially, in fact, Italy’s PM personalised the whole campaign, making the vote closer to a general election than a constitutional change. On the wavelength of the 2014 EU Parliamentary elections, in which his PD (Partito Democratico) got 40% of the preferences, Mr. Renzi decided to deliberately go all-in, enjoying the favour of the public opinion, now much more hostile. However, his bluff failed. Promising to leave politics and to resign if the ‘no’ side would win, Renzi has now partially retracted those words, making not clear what would come next whether the reform would not be approved. Therefore, only the second time, Renzi changed his strategy, leaning toward a more cautious, referendum-based approach. Few hours before the vote, nobody can spot whether this forced, but still partially efficacious, political twist will pay off. For sure, the ‘no’ side has already reached its peak and from then on it has certainly dropped. Whether this will be enough to prove the polls wrong is yet be seen.


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