Italy’s Referendum Is Giving Matteo Renzi Sleepless Nights

There is a risk voters will use the referendum to vent their frustration with Italy’s political class.

Italian prime minister Matteo Renzo visits the Ducal Palace of Mantua, January 23
Italian prime minister Matteo Renzo visits the Ducal Palace of Mantua, January 23 (Palazzo Chigi)

European democracy is in a state of crisis. The British referendum on EU membership has just backfired spectacularly on its promoters, Austria’s far-right Freedom Party recently came within a hair’s breadth of capturing the presidency and in France, Marine Le Pen’s Front national looks set to make it through to the second round of voting in the French presidential elections next year.

Now Italy is facing its own moment of reckoning with a referendum on constitutional reform, likely to go ahead this autumn. Like Brexit, the decision to hold this vote might end up destroying the man who sponsored it — Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.

The reform is a package aimed at reducing the fragmentation that causes so many problems in Italian politics. The idea is to increase executive stability and the efficiency of the whole system. But Renzi has staked his political future on the outcome having said, earlier in the year, he would resign if the vote went against him.

The reform explained

The main proposal is to reform the Senate, which has hitherto enjoyed the same powers as the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, in Italy’s parliament (which is “symmetrically bicameral”). This is thought to be inefficient because it supposedly obliges bills to shuttle back and forth between the two chambers until identically-worded texts can be agreed by both.

If passed, the proposals will limit the Senate’s legislative powers. It will no longer be able to pass votes of confidence in the government and, importantly, it will no longer be directly elected. Instead, a reduced membership will be selected by the regions from among their councilors and local mayors. The president will also appoint five members directly.

Linked to these Senate changes are newly introduced electoral reform laws for the lower house. These will have to be repealed if the Senate reform doesn’t go ahead. The new law introduces a list system of proportional representation for votes in 100 constituencies. The list with the most support nationally (provided it represents at least 40 percent of the vote) will automatically receive 340 of the 630 seats in the lower house of parliament (if not entitled to at least that proportion anyway). If no list achieves 40 percent, there will be a runoff between the two most-voted lists, with the winner being awarded the 340 seats. The remaining seats will be shared among the remaining lists according to their first-round totals (aside from twelve seats reserved for Italians living abroad).

Those who support this change point out that only single lists are allowed to run, not coalitions of lists. They argue that this, and the fact that a single list is guaranteed an overall majority, will increase the power and stability of the executive.

Renzi’s problem

Renzi’s referendum is the latest in a long line of attempts to address Italy’s democratic problems through constitutional overhaul.

His ascent to the premiership, and his career since, have been built on an attempt to cultivate an image as a man able to root out old vested interests in politics. His promise is to usher in a new era of decisiveness in Italian politics. He has framed the vote as a competition between the “old”, poor performing, Italy and the “new” — a message that went down well at first.

Opinion polls in the early months of 2016 suggested a sure win for the prime minister. But the gap has narrowed considerably. Renzi is vulnerable to defeat in the vote on a number of fronts and he has lately sought to row back from his pledge to resign if he loses, but it has come too late. All the parties of opposition are already lining up on the “no” side. They’ve spotted an opportunity to use this referendum to oust the prime minister, thereby hastening their own return to power.

It is always dangerous for a prime minister to frame such a vote as a plebiscite on their own performance. That’s especially true for Renzi now that his honeymoon period is over and his approval ratings are running at about 25 percent.

Renzi’s authority was also been dented by his party’s poor performance in local council elections in June. Now he faces considerable opposition to the reforms from within his own party. On top of that, he is under pressure to manage an influx of refugees and faces a possible banking crisis thanks to Brexit.

Brexit must be giving him sleepless nights for another reason too. Not many Italian voters will have much real understanding of the substance of his reforms and Brexit teaches us that when European voters are presented with the task of voting on complex issues they use it as an opportunity to vent their frustrations about the political establishment. Brexit became as much a vote on austerity and feelings of political inefficacy as a decision about EU membership, and the same could be true in Italy.

For Renzi personally, the stakes are enormous. If he loses, it is difficult to see him continuing to survive as prime minister for very long. If he wins, then he will be able to pose as the father of a new constitutional settlement. He can continue to dominate Italian politics for a long time to come.

Rising stars

Whether the stakes for Italian democracy are actually as high as this implies are to my mind extremely debatable — although, needless to say, they have been portrayed as such by both sides in the campaign.

It’s not clear that the current system really does hold up progress or indeed that the new one will make things more efficient.

The new electoral law seeks to enhance executive power by providing an absolute seat majority to the most popular list. This marks a crucial difference with the previous system, through which parties could field their candidates as coalitions of lists in a bid to win power. This led to the creation of large, unwieldy alliances designed to win elections but incapable of governing.

Yet the majority premium, together with a 3 percent representation threshold, gives parties an incentive to continue this practice. The new law will allow them to strike short-term agreements to field combined lists and do nothing to stop them splitting into autonomous entities again after entering parliament.

This has been a feature of all election outcomes since the 1990s. And, given the depth and variety of the divergences separating the Italian parties, it seems naive to think a new law will do much to change things.

Italy’s political elites are currently getting excited or agitated (depending on where they stand) about the prospect of the anti-political, populist, Euroskeptic Five Star Movement rising to power as a result of the changed electoral system.

The prospect arises from the outcome of the June local elections, which, in the larger municipalities, were also fought through two-round contests. The Five Stars managed to make it through to the second round in only twenty ballots but, having made it that far, they won all but one contest.

Why? Because as an anti-political party that wins support from across the political spectrum, when it finds itself up against just one competitor (whether of the right or left), it is in a strong position. In a head-to-head race, it can rely on backing not only from its own habitual supporters but also from people opposed to whichever party it finds itself up against.

In other words, in a straight fight of the kind characterizing a runoff ballot, the Five Stars become formidable. So an electoral law originally conceived as a means of excluding them from power might actually assist their rise. The law makes a single-party, Five Star government possible — not to say likely. The current divisions between the parties of the right mean that the chances of the Five Stars being involved in any Chamber of Deputies runoff ballot in the first place would be rather good.

So while it is always hazardous to make predictions in politics, and especially in Italian politics, it seems to me that whatever the outcome of the referendum, the symptoms of democratic crisis in Italy will probably persist for some time, whether or not Renzi is in power after the vote.

This article originally appeared at The Conversation, August 15, 2016.

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