#IoVotoNo – An explanation of the Italian Constitutional Referendum

On the 4th of December, Italians will go to the polls to vote on a constitutional reform that the government of Matteo Renzi has been strongly pushing. The British commentariat, never letting facts on the ground detract from a Hot Take, have been billing this referendum as the next Brexit or Donald Trump. Portraying this referendum as the latest populist revolt against elites is just sloppy journalism, and, as an Italian citizen myself, irritates me no end. The issue facing Italians at the polls is far more nuanced and subtle, and in the end far less significant than either Brexit or Donald Trump. Given the coverage of this vote has been atrocious in this country, and given the fact it raises some fairly interesting constitutional issues, I’ve decided to write this explanation for Perfidious Albion. In it, I’ll explain the reforms proposed, and give the reasons why I’m voting No (hence, #IoVotoNo).

To provide some context, Italy is unique in the world because the two chambers of its legislature, the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies, have precisely the same powers. There is no ‘lower’ or ‘higher’ chamber, although they are elected using different electoral systems. The government must command the support of both chambers, and both have the right to legislative action in all areas and to hold ministers to account. This is called Perfect Bicameralism, and is one of the checks and balances that the 1948 Constituent Assembly decided was needed so that authoritarianism could never take hold in Italy again. Deputies and senators are elected directly by the people (apart from a handful, by which I mean less than 10, senators that are appointed by the President for merit). Renzi’s reforms aim to abolish perfect bicameralism, the directly elected senate and more.

The reform affects so many articles of the constitution that it’s really quite difficult to go through all of them (something I don’t believe was an accident). The main ones are: changing the Senate, abolishing the National Council for the Economy and Work (Consiglio Nazionale dell’Economia e del Lavoro, CNEL) and reworking the powers held by the central state and the regional governments. First off, the reform wants to turn the Senate into a regional chamber. It would stop being directly elected and having the same powers as the chamber of deputies. Instead, regional parliaments would send the President of the region, some regional councillors and mayors of towns to be senators in Rome. Instead of perfect bicameralism, the Senate would become an institution that would regulate the relationship between the central state, the regions and the EU. The government would only need the confidence of the Chamber of Deputies. Furthermore, the whole legislative process would be overhauled. Certain laws will require the approval of both houses, others only one chamber will need to approve but the other may make amendments and others will be the prerogative of only one of the houses. Secondly, the CNEL will be abolished. With its basis in the constitution, the CNEL is a consultative body that advises the state on labour and economic matters. It is a tripartite body, with representatives from industry, labour and economists appointed to it. Importantly, it has the right to draft and present legislation relating to its competences. It may seem minor, but I’ll explain why I’m not in favour in the next paragraph. Finally, the constitutional reform aims to change the relationship between the regions and the state by redefining the powers that a region exercises.

Sounds good right? You could very easily, at first glance, agree with Renzi when he says that this reform just tries to make Italy more governable, make the constitution more rationalised and make the legislative process better value for money. Yet this ignores so many flaws in this policy. To begin with, the reform of the Senate is a red herring. Firstly, it tramples on the rights of the citizen to elect their own legislators. This I can see is a point of contention. Some people don’t have a problem with unelected second chambers, but I still believe that it’s the right of a citizen of a democratic nation to choose the people that will legislate for them. Secondly, the idea of Senate of the regions is a non-starter. Regional presidents, councillors and mayors should be concentrating on the jobs they already have, rather than having to shuttle back and forth between their region and Rome. Forcing more work upon them will simply detract from either their local jobs or from their job as a senator. Furthermore, the new Senate would not have the requisite powers to express the will of regional authorities in Parliament. Instead of a truly ‘federal’ second chamber, Italy would be left with a weak, useless institution that contributed very little to the governing process. Thirdly, the abolition of perfect bicameralism and the institution of a new legislative process will not make governing Italy any easier. A whole milieu of new procedure will be created after this reform. Some laws will be the prerogative of one chamber, others of both, others of one chamber but with powers of amendment given to the other. Constitutionalists have expressed their concern at the poor wording of this particular section of the reform, and have suggested that this bad drafting would create “uncertainty and conflict” between the two chambers. Moreover, although perfect bicameralism has been portrayed as this huge barrier to Italy’s governability, it actually represents one of the greatest checks and balances of the Italian political system. Yes to some extent it slows down the legislative process, but it is the greatest barrier to authoritarianism Italy possesses. If Renzi spent less time worrying about perfect bicameralism, he could do more to end the real rot at the heart of Italian politics; namely the patronage and corruption that permeates through it all. Considering how deeply entrenched he is in this corruption, it’s unlikely he ever will.

Moving away from the Senate, I deeply disagree with both the abolition of the CNEL and the proposed changes to the power of the regions. Firstly, although it hasn’t worked very well in the past, the CNEL can be a vital part of Italian democracy. Tripartite bodies are hugely important in providing consultation to the government, and they can help create less charged industrial relations by mediating between interests groups. Whether the government chooses to follow their advice is another matter and the CNEL could certainly work better, but straight-up abolishing it is not the solution to this particular problem. Secondly, the proposed changes to the relationship between the regions and central government will eviscerate regional authorities, changing them from actual semi-federal local governments into just compliant tools of the central government. Not only will powers be taken away from the regions, but central government, with a vote in the Chamber of Deputies, will be able to override any regional law. A group of 50 constitutionalists have written in an open letter “The regional asset of the Republic will come out of this reform severely weakened by this redistribution of competences which would take from the regions almost all legislative power, turning them into organisations without any real autonomy and without adequately guaranteeing their powers and responsibilities on the fiscal and financial front.” Furthermore, much like the reform of prerogatives between the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, the wording of these amendments are not at all clear. Again, constitutionalists expect even more contention and confusion between central and regional government if this reform passes.

This whole ‘reform’ stinks of authoritarianism. Abolishing the CNEL, getting rid of directly elected senators, limiting the powers of the elected regional governments plus a whole raft of other measures I haven’t mentioned (such as the abolition of elected provinces and their replacement in big urban conglomerations of unelected Metropolitan Cities) are policies that heavily damage the democratic nature of Italian politics and adds another layer of bureaucracy between government and the citizen. Furthermore, even the way this reform has been pushed by the government is anti-democratic. Rather than it being drawn up, debated, amended and voted on by a sovereign parliament, these amendments were drawn up by an unelected Prime Minister and his cronies and forced through Parliament using the brute force of parliamentary numbers. The Constitution is common heritage to all Italians, and its amendment must be done in a way that takes into account all political leanings, rather than representing a triumph of one party over the other in terms of number of votes. The Constitution derives its legitimacy from the fact that, unlike ordinary legislation, it is supported by all mainstream political forces. It is supposed to represent a common view on the way social and political relations should be conducted. This reform threatens the very viability of the Constitution as a unifying document for the nation.

This will be the first vote I ever cast in my life, and it makes me happy that it will be for the protection of what I believe is the best constitution in the world. The Sì campaign have been claiming that, if you vote No, the whole political system will fall apart and Italy will remain ungovernable. They say that if you vote No, you’re getting in bed with Berlusconi, the Northern League and the Five Star Movement. Renzi has sent a ‘personal letter’ to every Italian expat, with pictures of him with Obama, Xi Jinping, Justin Trudeau and Theresa May (even though she wants to make life difficult for the half million or more Italians living in the UK). His attempts at playing the international statesman are laughable. His rhetoric is full of talk of reforms but his cronyism is nearly as bad as Berlusconi’s. Italy is in desperate need of reform, but Renzi’s amendments are a step backward towards authoritarianism.