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Italy’s Quick Fix

In Italy, a constitutional referendum promises to solve the country's democratic crisis by cutting the number of politicians – but easy solutions to structural problems will feed rather than resolve popular frustrations.

Italy’s referendums are entertaining political theatre. Typically subject to personality politics, these dramas do at least counterbalance a lack of enthusiasm among voters. In 2016, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi guaranteed this by promising to resign if his reforms were not approved. The result: a participation rate of 65 percent, nearly double the numbers who voted in previous referendums.

Stakes are high as Italy casts its ballot for the first time in the Covid-19 age. In many ways, the referendum will be overshadowed by a series of regional elections in which populist right parties threaten their more traditional rivals. But the referendum carries particular importance in an age of democratic crisis across Europe.

If approved, the new law would reduce the number of representatives in each house by 36.5%. The 5 Star Movement and the League support the reform, while other parties such as the Democratic Party remain split. Foreign Secretary Luigi Di Maio (5SM) was among the loudest voices, accusing opponents of belonging to the establishment and ignoring Italian citizens’ voices. But his statement embodies an effort to undercut parliamentary representation. In many ways, the reform is the expression of how superficial the populist wave washing over the country’s politics can be.

While the current system is far from perfect, a cut in the number of MPs would be the wrong answer to systemic challenges. The simplistic discourse behind the proposal aims to stir up popular resentment with politics – rather than encouraging any deeper democratic reform. In reality, reducing the number of MPs will likely strengthen the grip of party machines over Italian politics and further lock out citizens from the process by damaging representation on multiple levels while leaving all other issues unattended.  

The 5SM and the League argue that the cut on representatives will save €100 million of public spending. However, estimates by the Osservatorio dei Conti Pubblici show that only €57 million will be saved when considering net salaries: that is, 95 cents per citizen per year and only 0.01% of the annual state budget. It hardly seems a worthwhile return on a vastly narrower political system.

Reducing the number of representatives would be economically insignificant, yet it would have a serious impact on democracy in the long term. Yes supporters have pointed to the fact that states like Germany have a lower ratio of representatives per 100,000 inhabitants. But unlike Germany, the reform they propose largely ignores regional distribution, causing serious inequalities. For example, Trentino Alto-Adige would obtain six senators by virtue of its autonomous provinces – two senators more than regions with a comparable or larger populations. 

The projected variation in the layout of the houses also shows how cuts would inadequately reflect the deeper transformation of the Italian electorate – including the substantial part of it which now lives abroad. According to the National Statistic Institute, 157,000 Italians left the country in 2018. A staggering total of 816,000 people emigrated between 2008 and 2019. The yes vote would result in the loss of two senators and four deputies, subtracted from an already small group of representatives elected by citizens living abroad. Regional, national, and foreign representation would deteriorate in the name of a minor streamlining of the public accounts.

Moreover, in the frenzy of appealing to disappointed voters, parties are omitting the actual need for institutional streamlining. Italy’s perfect bicameralism requires that both the upper and the lower house provide a confidence vote for legislation to pass. The system is responsible for one of the slowest parliamentary processes in the world, with some law proposals requiring 1,300 days to be approved. With the same backlogs falling on fewer representatives, it is likely that parliamentary commissions will be even more ineffective.

Blaming bad governance on quantity instead of quality is a limited way of exploring the roots of institutional paralysis. With this in mind, 183 constitutional academics signed a joint letter stressing that the reform does not fix the shortcomings of perfect bicameralism and a history of botched electoral reforms. Italy’s 68 governments in 73 years cannot be blamed simply on its number of representatives.

The prolonged state of emergency arising from the Covid-19 disaster requires special scrutiny. Across Europe, a growing movement of authoritarianism has profited from exceptional circumstances. Undermining the parliamentary process is likely to empower present and future leaders – while fostering cheap anti-political solutions to longstanding problems has obvious and significant risks.

Italians can and should demand more from their representatives and institutional architecture. But limiting overdue change to a superficial patching up is the opposite of what’s required. The frequency of such constitutional referendums in Italy has increased in the last twenty years. This should be cause for concern: it perpetuates a dangerous trend of attaching party-specific stakes to the permanent aspects of politics which make democratic competition possible.