The (in)stability of change: The Italian constitutional referendum

by | 2 Dec 2016

858743-7Basta un SI [a YES is enough], is the slogan coined by the campaign for the approval of the Italian constitutional reform to be either confirmed or rejected on December 4th, in the nth referendum of these troubled European years. If the reform is rejected, according to the YES campaign, ‘everything will remain the same’. 60 years after the publication of Tomasi de Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard, with its (in)famous passage – ‘everything needs to change, so everything can stay the same’ – the Italian political rhetoric is yet to be updated. While change is apparently constant (one point will suffice: 63 governments in 70 years), the story goes, everything remains the same. Widespread corruption (according to Italians’ perceptions), systematic clientelism, the vast machine of bureaucracy: these usually form the diagnosis for what the Economist recently indicated as Italy’s almost ancestral ‘unwillingness to reform’ – despite 15 constitutional amendments since 1948 or the fact that, just in the last fifteen years, massive reforms have been approved in the fields of justice, school, university, labour, pensions, public works, to mention the most relevant.

Especially in the last decades, the peculiar composition of the Italian parliament, as well as its electoral procedure, have been increasingly indicated as the structural reasons for its oxymoronically constant instability. Unique in Europe, Italy has a ‘perfect bicameralism’, which means that both chambers of parliament (of deputies, Camera, and senators, Senato) have equal legislative power. ‘A recipe for gridlock’, the Economist continues. The prime minister Matteo Renzi agrees. According to him, this needs to change in order for real change to be possible, that is, in order to provide the government with effective instruments to pass (more and more) reforms: capacity to take decisions, power to transform them into law, and to smooth the system assuring the swiftness of this process.

First, this required a new electoral law. In the story that is often told; the post WW2 republic had three electoral laws. The last one, the notorious 2005 Porcellum, defined as rubbish (porcata) by its own proposer, was recently declared unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court. Last year the parliament thus passed a fourth law, the Italicum, another hybrid system, halfway through proportional and uninominal, that provides a strong bonus in the Camera (340 out of 630 seats) to the party that obtain the 40% of votes in the first turn, or the majority in the second ballot. A system, therefore, whereby even a low first ballot percentage can allow a party to get the full control of the parliament. A problematic system indeed, as the Constitutional Court is already evaluating its constitutionality, and the very same government that approved it on May 2015 has just designated a commission to modify it! No wonder that the next step proved to be controversial from the beginning, namely, the abandonment of that very configuration – perfect bicameralism – originally envisaged to prevent a ruling party from obtaining excessive power. Let alone the curious paradox, as Goffredo Adinolfi notes, that a de facto illegitimate parliament – insofar as elected with an electoral law then declared unconstitutional – approved the new electoral law, and now pretends to reform the Constitution itself. How?

The reform, strongly wanted by the government, was approved by a small majority of the parliament – the referendum being necessary when constitutional amendments are not approved by at least a two-third majority in both chambers. The most ambitious constitutional reform in the history of the Republic, it affects 47 out the 139 articles of the Constitution. But it makes three main revisions. First and foremost, the reform would drastically affect the Senate, reducing it to a consultative body (except for a small amount of specific laws for which it will keep its legislative function), and reducing its members from 315 to 100. The latter won’t be elected directly anymore, but picked, with procedures yet to be approved, among representatives in local and regional authorities, who would thus perform a double job. Second, unworking the de-centralising effort of the last couple of decades, a series of regional powers will be re-centralized. Third, the National Council for Economics and Labour (Consiglio Nazionale dell’Economia e del Lavoro, CNEL), an assembly of experts providing consultancy to public institutions, will be abolished.

Besides various technical issues that have been raised regarding the possible application of this reform, here we are interested in exploring the key concepts alimenting it: change, speed, decision. The reform, the YES advocates (including the ruling Partito Democratico, PD and some centre-right formations governing in coalition with it) argue, will finally provide the executive branch with real decisional power, as well as faster decisional process by overcoming the ‘impasse’ of perfect bicameralism. With only the Camera – direct expression of the government, and with a solid majority, courtesy of the Italicum – holding the legislative keys, the government will pass the much-needed reforms in a quicker and more effective way. In fact, Italian politics have been flirting with its own version of decisionism – Carl Schmitt’s doctrine, that evaluates the capacity of a government to take decisions, and transform them quickly into laws, over their actual content – for almost one hundred years. Silvio Berlusconi himself lamented since day one of his political adventure the pernicious effects of Italian bicameralism in preventing his governments from passing the necessary reforms (the fact that today he is campaigning for a NO should not surprise, being simply coherent with his character).

fewwshearDecision, or lack thereof, is also the great regret of a whole generation of the Italian left. This is what the well-known philosopher Massimo Cacciari, former mayor of Venice and former member of the PD, explained in a recent interview. This reform ‘technically sucks’ [tecnicamente fa schifo], he conceded, and yet we should vote for it. ‘We [in the left] haven’t be able to reform the system in the last forty years’. Ci abbiamo provato e abbiamo creduto di farcela [we tried and we thought we made it], as an old Massimo Volume song opens. Yet we did not, and now, his argument goes, we cannot confine ourselves in the comfort of a NO position, from where to linger in an eternal wait for the faithful moment in which a ‘better reform’ will finally materialise. No, he concludes, we need to endorse this ‘clumsy’ [maldestra] reform that, whatever its limits, would nonetheless open a crack within the monolithic sameness of Italian politics, and thus a possibility to finally move forward. As the left-wing political observer Michele Serra commented, ‘the sole idea that something will happen is more convincing than the idea that it could be wrong’.

Indeed, such an uncritical acceptance of change seems to have contaminated also its very procedure as, for the first time, a constitutional reform has been promoted by a government, rather than being the outcome of a parliamentary deliberation, and approved by the majority, without negotiation with the minorities. The result, perhaps not surprising, is a reform that raises more than an eyebrow also among those who are actually going to vote it,  falling between the (declared) intention and the actual outcome. While seemingly shifting from parliamentary to a quasi-presidential (not on the form, yet evidently on the substance), the system will however lack the checks and balances typical of presidential one (like the US strong Supreme Court), thus strengthening fears of its vulnerability vis-à-vis being exploited by quasi-authoritarian governments.

This is a point many within the NO campaign (a variegated ensemble or, as the prime minister defined it, accozzaglia – i.e. an odd assortment, a rabble – including the anti-immigrants Lega Nord, the Five-Star Movement, the nationalist right, the scattered remains of the ‘radical’ left etc.) strongly endorse. Among them notable jurists remind that the perfect bicameralism, in the intention of the drafters of the Constitution, intended to avoid the possibility for authoritarian governments obtaining an uncontrollable power. A common argument among the YES front is that the checks and balances provided by the second chamber made sense in 1948, when the memory of Nazi-Fascism was vivid, not today. An argument that, however, in the current world where Trump is president of the US, Brexit is a reality and extreme right winds are blowing around Europe, appears as somewhat shaky. The combination of the decisional power allowed by this reform with the strong electoral bonus provided by the Italicum is among the NO front’s main fears. This is further nourished by this reform’s reduction of regions’ power, which will arguably eliminate what is perceived as yet another necessary limitation to the government capacity to act indiscriminately in the territory (especially in relation to controversial mega infrastructural works).

Yet, being this Italy, the birthplace of personalised politics, all these considerations make little sense if not framed through this angle. Since the beginning the prime minister Renzi has basically tied the fate of his own political career to the result of the referendum – again, in spite of the national tradition of parliamentary leadership over constitutional amendments. If Renzi is to be taken seriously, a NO victory (quite likely according to the last polls) would trigger a government crisis. Renzi himself, in a rare public moment of self-critique, lately admitted that personalising the vote to this extent may have been a mistake. However, there are reasons to think this is not completely true or, at least, that such mistake actually turned into a strategic weapon for him. The argument is simple: especially in the Italian political context, the personalisation of the referendum around the figure of Renzi would have been unavoidable, done by the opposition. By anticipating this outcome, and thus tying the referendum to his future, Renzi de facto turned it into a popular vote of confidence on his government, and thus to the threat of a government crisis that would consequently follow. A familiar strategy indeed: There Is No Alternative to Renzi’s reform. A powerful narrative that foreign press have been more than enthusiastic to follow. If Renzi loses the referendum and resigns, the story goes, elections would follow and the populist Five Star Movement would probably win – an account that neglects that the Five Star may well win a majority in the Camera, but that is almost impossible in the Senato where a quasi-proportional system is in force (as result of the declaration of unconstitutionality of the previous electoral law). The Financial Times went as far as to forecast Italy’s exit from the Euro as well as, in the last instalment of its apocalyptic campaign, the collapse of up to eight Italian banks in case of the victory of the NO – putting forth a technically absurd relation between the Italian institutional system and the capacity of Italian banks to pay their debts. In short, such narratives resonate with the ‘blackmailing’ perpetrated against Scotland in the eve of the independence referendum, probably the last significant victory in the west of the TINA argument, quickly swept out in the Greek OXI, Brexit and Trump cases.

And yet, rather than simply read the Italian referendum as yet another instantiation of this pattern, we should also consider the extent to which its unfolding is being shaped by it. If on the one hand the TINA argument suffered astonishing blows, it is even more plausible now, as the potential for a new Trump, perhaps in the shape of Beppe Grillo – whatever the realistic chances of this actually occurring –, is evidently a very good argument in the hands of the doomsayers. The prime minister’s economic advisor argues that ‘there is a strong argument to be made that it is precisely the weakness of governments in Italy and elsewhere – their inability to respond to the demands of the citizenry in an efficient, effective and transparent way – that has fuelled the rise of populists and “post-truth politics”’. If undeniably he has a point, on the other hand, is not exactly such perceived ‘weakness’ the result of those checks and balances that are there to supposedly prevent any ‘populist’ movement to obtain excessive power?

Coming back to Cacciari is again revealing. Besides the above-mentioned argument, in the same interview he raises a complementary problem: the chaos that would follow, if the NO should win. Facing this risk, he maintains, we need to choose the ‘lesser evil’. In fact, although Cacciari observes that Renzi made a big mistake to personalise the referendum, he implicitly argues that exactly by doing so, Renzi de facto convinced him to vote, since it is such a personalisation to have tied the fate of his government to the fate of this vote. ‘We can be openly critical [of the reform] and yet feel a republican responsibility [towards the system]’, that is, we need to be responsible to keep the system in place – the very system that, the NO front argues, will be eroded by a YES vote! What Cacciari is arguing is for voters to act as a Katechon, a power that holds (the very title of one of his last books) the system from the risk of a future apocalypse to come. The risk, as readers of political theory as well as attentive observers of the last decades of political rhetorics well know, is that of emptying critique from its radical force – be  critical, but vote YES! –, refraining from performing actually political gestures for the post-political task of administering and procrastinating the system, i.e. keeping it responsibly in place.

Dwelling further on the question of responsibility we may let the left enter this confused scenario. ‘Responsibility’, as per Cacciari’s argument, refers to both the risk that a fall of Renzi would bring about the rise of populism (i.e. Five Stars) as well as the responsibility to ‘make reforms’ – because, of course, There Is No Alternative to making reforms! It is against the background of this very dichotomy that the past and present perspectives of the Italian left need be understood – a left whose remnants are currently dispersed among a small minority of PD and Sinistra Italiana [Italian Left], an umpteenth attempt at creating a unitary home. The left has been squeezed between the third way ‘hyper-productivity’ of Renzi, who gathered most of what is often called the ‘establishment’ support, and the Five-Star Movement, which has become the ‘alternative’ – hence the nod to the Five-Star electorate Renzi is increasingly performing in these last days of campaign, shouting with a typical Five-Star jargon against the corruption of the casta politica (political caste), a group that he is apparently convinced not to be part of, as well as stressing the value of the reform in reducing the ‘costs of politics’ (by about 50 million euro due to the reduction of Senators and 9 million euro due to the abolishment of CNEL yearly).

In fact, as Wu Ming suggested, and far from its depiction as counter-systemic party, the Five Star Movement ultimately helped to ‘defend’ this system, since it hampered the possibility that post-crisis socio-economic conflict would set the ground for a real (left-wing) alternative — similarly to what happened in Spain with Podemos, in Greece with Syriza, in Portugal with Bloco de Esquerda and even in the UK with Jeremy Corbyn. The effect of populist movements on the present and the future is enormous. They are able to catalyse rightful anger against government mismanagement by turning it into a question of moral integrity of its members, thus blocking the necessary reflection on how to structurally change the system itself. The Five Stars did so, by occupying the promising space opened up by the crisis of global capitalism and imbricating such radical potential into their own moralistic (and typically right-wing) narrative. Populist movements at the same time catalyse fears about the future thus preventing properly radical initiatives against the status quo, since Trump can always be the outcome. This is what the Five Stars indirectly do, de facto occupying the future, as an ever-looming threat that, as we saw, still works convincing many on the left to choose the lesser evil, thus preventing them to act against the present status quo.

This is why we want to refer to a further dimension of responsibility, that is, the responsibility to build up alternatives from a properly left-wing perspective: challenging both TINA and that tendency of the left to resigning itself to simply carving temporary comfort-zones of ‘radicalist’ opposition, resistance, self-fulfilment. The Italian left has often avoided the dirty job of proposing and producing concrete programs and inventing the future, as Williams and Srnicek put it, preferring instead to sit back, resist and wait for a (better) future to come. We believe it is through such responsibility that the left can (re)build its space in Italian politics. In the specific, here, this required going beyond the automatic defence of the ‘most beautiful constitution of the world’, as the Italian one is often referred to in left-wing circles. While Renzi says that either this reform is approved or there will be decades before another one will come forward, the left has the responsibility to think and propose ways to go beyond the undeniable problems of the Italian institutional and political system, maybe even reconsidering the ‘perfect bicameralism’, if needed. This is what would distinguish it from the populism of Five Stars and other groups. This is also what would make this NO vote much more consistent, exactly because challenging the most important argument towards the YES, namely, the systematic unwillingness of the left to address the limits to Italian governance.

Andrea Pavoni, Post-doc researcher, DINÂMIA’CET, Centro de Estudos sobre a Mudança Socioeconómica e o Território, ISCTE – Instituto Universitário de Lisboa
Simone Tulumello, Post-doc researcher, ULisboa, Instituto de Ciências Sociais


  1. Very interesting, thanks. A short comment, though. The referendum was not ‘necessary’. Article 138 of the Constitution says that a referendum will take place, after a law of constitutional reform fails to obtain the necessary qualified majority, if 1/5 of the members of the Chamber of Deputies, 500,000 voters or five regional councils request it. There is no inevitability. The fact that the constitutional referendum requires no quorum is the troubling element. That is one constitutional amendment worth proposing.

    • Hi Alessandra, thanks! And, right, we could (should?) had specified that, but didn’t do for the sake of simplicity (considering that the fact that just 20% of deputies are necessary to request it makes the referendum quite inevitable effect when missing the 2/3 majority).

      • I see your point, and in fact this facet of article 138 is quite disturbing in itself. Originally included I think as an anti-majoritarian mechanism, it can have perverse consequences. In any event, thanks again for the brilliant contribution.


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