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Will Renzi Score an Own Goal?


On 4 December Italians, including those who reside abroad, will vote to approve or reject the largest ever package of revisions to the Italian constitution since its introduction in 1948. If the proposed revisions fail to achieve majority support, there will be repercussions for both Italian and European politics.

The Italian prime minister and leader of the centre-left Democratic Party, Matteo Renzi, is the key driver and sponsor of the proposed constitutional change. Earlier this year, when the Italian parliament approved the revision package, the referendum looked like little more than a formality. So much so that Renzi buoyantly declared that he would quit and call for new elections if the revisions were rejected.

However, events such as the refugee crisis and Brexit have combined with electoral losses in key local elections (including the councils of Rome and Turin that went to the anti-establishment Five Star Movement) to unsettle the Italian political climate. Voters are becoming more attracted to anti-establishment parties such as the cross-ideological Five Star Movement (M5S) led by comedian Beppe Grillo; and the right-wing Lega Nord (Northern League) that is allied with the remnants of the ageing Silvio Berlusconi’s party Forza Italia. Mixing political conviction and expediency, these opposition parties have called for the constitutional reforms to be scrapped, partly to destabilise Renzi’s government and ride the wave of popular concern with Italy’s role in an embattled Europe.

Key points of constitutional reforms

The appeal of anti-establishment parties is not the only reason why Italians may turn against the proposed constitutional reforms. Indeed, many top jurists criticise the new constitutional text as institutionally unstable and less democratic. This argument is based on the fact that the reform aims to overcome the bicameralism that characterises the Italian parliamentary system. In the current legislative system, all ordinary laws, the budget and even votes of confidence in the government must be approved equally by both houses of parliament. With the revisions, however, the Chamber of Deputies will become the only body directly elected by the citizens and the only body required to approve ordinary laws, the budget and to guarantee confidence in the government. The Italian Senate will cease to be directly elected by citizens and become what is essentially a consultative body of local administrations, composed of 100 senators (instead of the current 315) chosen by regional councils.

Another point of contention is the radical redistribution of executive powers in favour of the national government and away from regional administrations in policy areas such as the environment, transport, energy and employment policies. With the revisions, some jurists argue, the constitutional and administrative courts will be flooded with complex jurisdictional claims of competing executive powers, with further negative impact on the governance and accountability of the strained public sector.

Mr Renzi’s own goals on global politics

Stronger than expected opposition, along with opinion polls showing an uncertain outcome for the referendum, have led Renzi to retract his promise to quit if the referendum does not pass. However, if the reforms do fail to pass, Renzi may find his position as prime minister challenged from within his own party, possibly by former Prime Minister Massimo D’Alema and former Party Secretary Pier Luigi Bersani. In particular, D’Alema and Bersani have been champions of the left-wing voices of dissent against the substance of the constitutional revisions, as well as Mr Renzi’s bullish leadership of the Democratic Party.

This political crisis may lead to general elections much earlier than those due to occur in  2018, and may also take Italy into unchartered waters. In fact, the newly introduced electoral system gives an automatic majority to the party than wins the second round run-off ballot between the two popular parties of the first round. Opinion polls currently show that Grillo’s M5S has the best chance to win government in the next general elections. This is clearly an own-goal of Renzi’s, given that he has pushed this electoral reform as a way of improving the chances of his Democratic Party winning government in its own right and reducing the influence of the small conservative parties (breakaways from Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party) that currently give him the numbers to govern. Now Renzi is trying to change the electoral law again to the detriment of the Five Star Movement, but he may run out of time if the referendum does not pass.

An Italian David Cameron?

Noting that Germany, France, and the Netherlands are all going to the polls in 2017 with their far right parties on the rise, a deep political crisis in Italy is likely to trigger a domino effect in European politics.

This may explain the recent endorsement of Renzi’s constitutional revisions by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, US President, Barack Obama, as well a number of global business media outlets. For instance, the Wall Street Journal argues that the rejection of the constitutional revisions could rattle stocks, bonds and the euro, and set a damaging tone for Europe. For the Financial Times, Italy’s referendum holds the key to the future of the euro, as it puts rather dramatically that “on 5 December, Europe could wake up to an immediate threat of disintegration”. These endorsements may increase the chances for an own-goal from Renzi’s camp, with many Italians regarding these comments as an intrusion by the foreign poteri forti (the elite establishment) in Italian affairs. This clearly adds fuel to the populist and anti-establishment discourse in any approaching electoral campaign.

Dr Giovanni Di Lieto lectures in international trade law in the bachelor of international business program at Monash University. Previously he was a legal practitioner in Italy. He is a council member of AIIA VIC.

Chiara De Lazzari is completing a PhD in politics at Swinburne University of Technology.

Bruno Mascitelli is an associate professor at Swinburne University of Technology.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.

Published November 29, 2016

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