November 2016

By Gabriella Ippolito

For the final state visit of his presidency, U.S. President Obama hosted Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi on October 18th at the White House. Among the glittering number of attendees and a fabulous menu planned by celebrity Chef Mario Batali, President Obama and Prime Minister Renzi made formal remarks, expressing the two countries’ long-standing friendship and alliance in NATO.

President Obama also voiced support for the prime minister in his current referendum battle in Italy saying, “The upcoming referendum to modernize Italy’s political institutions is something the United States strongly supports because we believe that it will help accelerate Italy’s path towards a more vibrant, dynamic economy, as well as a more responsive political system.”

In this year of referendums, Italy’s has not been under quite as intense a global spotlight as were other referendums, such as the British referendum on the EU that led to Brexit or the Colombian referendum on the peace process. Still, if it passes, it could drastically change Italian politics. As a “constitutional referendum,” the winner will be decided by a simple majority, regardless of the number of voters who participate on December 4th. At stake is the very size and design of the Italian Parliament. Considering Italy has a population of almost 60 million people, its parliament of 945 members (630 deputies and 315 senators) is quite large and many, including Prime Minister Renzi, say this has made it unwieldy and inefficient.

If the referendum passes, the Italian Senate will shrink to 100 senators and the practice of appointing of “senators for life” will be abolished. The remaining senators will not be elected directly but instead will be regional appointees who will wield power only over regional matters. This change is seen as helping to streamline the governing process in Italy because legislation will no longer bounce from one chamber to the other as it currently does in Italy’s bicameral system. According to Mr. Renzi, this particular change will allow for the passage of difficult but necessary economic reforms. Should the referendum pass only the chamber of deputies will have the power to call for a vote of no confidence, currently either chamber can and Italy is one of very few Parliamentary democracies with this system in place; this has led to many governments falling. This change would strengthen the executive's ability to govern. The referendum also includes cost-saving initiatives that aim to restrict government expense. 

Mr. Renzi is the leader of Italy’s centrist Democratic Party (PD), the largest party in the Italian Parliament with 301 deputies. The party by-and-large supports the referendum, although some PD members in the left wing of the party have broken with the prime minister. Aligned against the referendum are Italy’s next three largest parties. This includes the far-right Northern League (Lega Nord) led by Matteo Salvini, the center-right Forza Italia party led by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, and the ideologically unaligned 5 Star Movement led by comedian Beppe Grillo. Combined, these parties have 160 deputies in parliament. They argue that the proposed reform is illegitimate, that it will lead to greater conflicts between the state and regions, and that it will concentrate too much power in the hands of the executive.

In explaining the reasoning behind the referendum, Prime Minister Renzi has stated that if the referendum fails, he will resign. In doing so, Mr. Renzi has effectively correlated the success of the referendum with achieving his policy goals. This conflation has clouded the rationale for opposition to the actual substance of referendum, with many of those against it now describing their logic as simply opposing Renzi’s continued tenure as prime minister.

Italy’s ongoing economic troubles, high unemployment, and Mr. Renzi’s bailout of a number of Italian banks last year have all damaged his popularity significantly. If elections were held today, the anti-establishment, anti-European Union 5 Star Movement could become the largest party in parliament. Its leaders have said that if the referendum fails, Mr. Renzi should immediately leave office and snap elections should be held immediately.

Seven out of eight recent polls in Italy show opposition to the referendum winning with an average of 54 percent voting against and 46 percent voting in favor. However, almost nine percent of respondents say they are still undecided with a month left until the vote. A win for “No” would almost certainly lead to Mr. Renzi’s resignation as prime minister, followed by a caretaker government and general elections in early 2017.

Considering that Italy has had 63 governments in the past 70 years, the referendum attempts to change the system. Whether or not Renzi is able to convince the Italian people remains to be seen.