ANALYSIS – Italy’s Constitutional Referendum May Open Doors for Broader Electoral Reform
* ITALY * CONSTITUTIONAL * REFERENDUM *
GENOA, September 14 (Sputnik), Anastasia Levchenko – The upcoming constitutional referendum in Italy on the reduction of the number of parliamentarians that will take place on September 20-21 may become a door-opener for a wider electoral reform in the country, Italian experts on constitutional law told Sputnik. The referendum was originally scheduled for March 29, but will take place on the weekend together with local elections in a number of regions, as it was postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic. It will ask the voters if they want to approve changes to the articles 56, 57 and 59 of the constitution in order to cut the number of lawmakers from 630 to 400 in the Chamber of Deputies and from 315 to 200 in the Senate. The proposal was one of the main campaign promises of the Five Star Movement (M5S) in 2018, arguing that it would considerably reduce the costs of politics for the taxpayers. It became part of the coalition government deal of M5S and the Democratic Party (PD) in 2019. NEED FOR A WIDER REFORM “The economic element, however significant, is not the central aspect of the referendum: a YES answer expressed by the voters would mean that Italian citizens find it necessary to initiate a process of reform aimed at improving the organization of the parliamentary system,” Giancarlo Rolla, professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Genoa and director of its Center for Research on Constitutional Systems, told Sputnik. According to Rolla, who is also a member of Italian Association of Comparative Law and Italian Association of Constitutionalists, the wider electoral reform should consist of revising the electoral districts (in order to avoid the consequences of the reduction of deputies and senators for the representation of the territories) and of approving an electoral law of a proportional type with preferential voting and the prohibition of multiple candidacies. “Candidates should no longer run in different constituencies as they do now and should be chosen by preferential voting by voters instead of by parties as envisaged by the current voting system without preferential voting,” Rolla said. “In addition, the reduction of the number of parliamentarians should encourage reforms aimed at improving representative democracy, lowering the age to vote for the Senate and providing more effective forms of popular legislative initiative,” he continued.
Michele Ainis, professor of public law institutions at the University of Roma Tre, member of the Italian Competition and Market Authority (AGCM), echoed the view of Rolla in what regards the subsequent reforms. “This reform should be continued by the others, starting with the electoral law,” he said, noting that the economic benefit of the reduction of parliament size exists, but is not the main one to justify the reform, “because democracy has its price, it is so everywhere in the world, and therefore those who want a democratic system should also accept its costs.”
IMPACT ON REPRESENTATION In the run-up to the referendum there has been a heated debate regarding the possible effects of the reduction on the representation of Italian regions in the parliament, with many arguing that small territories may lose their voice and the whole system would be unbalanced. “In fact, the hidden effect of a reduction in the number of parliamentarians is of majoritarian type and therefore to some extent it can affect the smaller parties that would face more difficulties with having their representatives elected to the parliament. This problem relates first of all to the Senate and primarily to the smaller Italian regions, like Basilicata and Molise, so the next electoral law will have to intervene to correct these distortions. The larger parties will perhaps have an advantage and the smaller parties a disadvantage, but one party is big today and small tomorrow – in Italy it happens often,” Ainis said. However, the subsequent reform of the electoral law and introduction of proportionate representation system may re-balance these irregularities, Rolla argued. “The proportional principle would give the parliament a more balanced political representation. Moreover, introduction of a threshold would prevent an excessive proliferation [into the parliament] of small groups, which would be incentivized to create coalitions. Therefore, the reduction of parliamentarians would affect unrepresentative groups that run in the election on their own, and would benefit the parties with more popular support or those who decide to join forces,” Rolla said. Italy currently has a hybrid voting system, nicknamed “Rosatellum,” which was adopted by the parliament in 2017, and under which 36 percent of the seats are allocated by a first-past-the-post system and 64 percent by a proportional representation system. A positive consequence of the reduction in the number of lawmakers can be a better recognizability of the Italian parliament. “A parliament with fewer MPs becomes more recognizable. Because at the moment no one knows who his deputy or his senator is. If they were less, like, for example, in the American Senate, where there are only one hundred members, they would become more prestigious, more authoritative and even more representative, and this is an important thing that could be the guiding principle of the policy to improve the role of the Parliament,” Ainis said. He noted that the Italian parliament at the moment “is the most crowded parliament in the world, with 16 parliamentarians for every million of inhabitants, and this deprives the
parliamentary assemblies of authority.
” BANANA PEEL FOR GOVERNING COALITION Both governing parties have called for a YES vote in the referendum. Given how few points in common M5S and PD have in general, one may wonder how the ruling coalition may take the possible victory of the NO side. “It can be a pretext for a government crisis, in the sense that there already exist some winds of crisis. Above all, there is an economic and health situation in the country that worries Italians and that brings some new divisions among the political forces. So I believe that a government crisis, if there is one, will happen because of that, because of economic, social and medical issues. However, since both the Democratic Party and the M5S have spoken out in favor of YES at this referendum, if instead the NO side wins, that could become a ‘banana peel’ so to say,” Ainis said.
VOTERS MOODS Many experts predict a low turnout both for the constitutional referendum and for the regional elections that coincide in some regions. This may give a certain advantage to the NO voters, according to Ainis and Rolla. “Now public opinion is distracted by other issues, which are the ones we were talking about earlier, that is, the issues of economics and health. While in February or January there was more attention to politics, including this topic [of the referendum], now it is less,” Ainis said. He added that the YES side has less benefit of voter enthusiasm. “However, in this period, a front has grown against the reform, amplified by the lack of motivation of the Italians to go and vote in the referendum, because they will have to stay in the queue at the polling station, increasing the risk of getting sick. So those who vote YES are less motivated to go and vote than those who vote NO for a number of reasons. And so this can certainly help those opposed to the reform, the NO side,” he added. According to Rolla, several months of delays have given the media an opportunity to build a stronger case for NO. Moreover, the coronavirus pandemic has switched the public attention from the “political games” to more substantial issues, such as health and economics.