Italy’s poll on electoral reform is not a done deal

by Tommaso Venditti

At present, the three main challenges the Italian government is facing are the reopening of schools, the regional elections and the referendum on the reduction in the number of parliamentarians. While the debate is still raging regarding schools and education measures to be adopted in order to prevent a second outbreak of the pandemic, a deadline has been fixed on the two other fronts.

September the 20th and the 21st represent an “election day” for the country and for the stability of the ruling majority. In fact regional elections, according to the just approved “Elezioni” decree, have been jointly arranged with the first stage of administrative elections, along  with the referendum. These events are of major relevance for the future of the government.

In a few weeks seven regions will host elections (Valle d’Aosta, Liguria, Veneto, Toscana, Marche, Campania, Puglia) representing a first warning for the majority. As a matter of fact, even though these are only predictions, candidates from the opposition (one per region, representing the centre-right coalition) are believed to be generally favoured, partially because in some cases “M5s” and “PD” will present two different choices, fragmenting the majority and, most likely, automatically offer votes to Salvini, Meloni and Berlusconi.

Analysing the referendum more in detail, it concerns a reduction in the number of parliamentarians. Senators will drop from 315 to 200, whereas deputies will fall to 400 from 630 (-36.5%). This referendum is confirmatory (the fourth in the history of the Republic, after 2001, 2006 and 2016). It will basically force voters to choose between supporting or opposing the reform (and getting to the 50 per cent plus 1 will not be strictly necessary to have a valid outcome).

The cut in parliamentarians is a trademark of “M5s”. Actually, the party proposed it in the last legislature, when they were ruling in the country along with “Lega”. Back then there were internal struggles making it impossible for the reform to be approved on a definitive basis. Anyway, after the current government was formed, leaving out the hilariously illegitimate way the mandate was initiated, the new ruling parties (“PD” and “Leu”) came to terms with “M5s”. According to the agreement, in exchange for a cut in parliamentarians, three constitutional reforms would have been faced:

1) lowering the minimum age in order to vote for the Senate from 25 to 18 years old

2) cutting the number of regional delegates for the election of the President of the Republic

3) modifying the regional basis in order to vote for the Senate

In any case, the reform of the parliamentarians has not became effective yet as a result of 71 members of the Senate requesting a confirmatory referendum on January the 10th 2020. 

In the event that the reform passes, the current electoral law, the so called “Rosatellum”, has to be modified, redesigning the number of constituencies given the lower number of parliamentarians to be elected.  It is a hybrid electoral system, as it comprises 61 per cent of parliamentarians elected with a proportional system and 37 per cent elected via a majority one (plus 2 per cent depending on overseas constituencies).

It goes without saying that the reform presents both pros and cons. Among the reasons for positively responding to the referendum are:

  1. The State might save up to 100 million euros per year, therefore, with an ordinary course of the legislature, 500 million euros for a whole government mandate
  2. It would not put at risk representation in general. In fact, there would be about one parliamentarian for every 100,000 voters, with democracies having more than 30 million inhabitants showing, on average, a ratio of 1: 190,000

In particular, the number of voters per single deputy would rise from 96,000 up 151,000, and from 188,000 to 302,000 for senators

  1. It might be able to diminish the fragmentation of political parties and groups in the Parliament, along with elected members bearing more responsibility
  2. An improvement in the decision-making process.

Overall, it would enable Italy to keep up with the rest of Europe, as at the moment it is the country presenting the highest number of people-elected parliamentarians (945) followed by Germany (700) UK (650) and France (600).

Nevertheless, there are many arguments in favour of a negative vote in the referendum:

  1. According to “+Europa”, “Azione”, “Sinistra Italiana” and “PSI” the real savings would be 82 million euros per year (53 millions for the Chamber of Deputies and 29 millions for the Senate) which, in turn, would fall to 57 million euros once the net salary of parliamentarians is considered
  2. Excessively reducing representation in some territories
  3. The ratio of parliamentarians to voters would be weakened, with Italy becoming one of the countries with the lowest one
  4. The election of the President of the Republic and many other procedures would have to be changed if the reform succeeds. 

The current trend shows that the front in favour of the referendum is preponderant; according to a recent poll by “Atlante Politico” published by “Repubblica”, 82 per cent of voters are supporting the reform. Paradoxically, among the few undecided parties, “PD” comprises the majority, along with “Italia Viva” and “Cambiamo” by Toti. There are many relevant parties willing to vote “yes” to the reform: first of all “M5s”, the true promoters, followed by “Lega” and “Fratelli d’Italia”.

Berlusconi, while initially declared himself as undecided, recently showed his aversion to the referendum, declaring that “made in such a way, as M5s wants, it risks being only a demagogic act, limiting the representativity, reducing the liberty and our democracy”.

Interestingly enough, according to  “Ipsos” agency polling, only one third of the population knows the content of the referendum, undermining the current general assumption towards favouring the reform.

Moreover, the agency “ Piepoli” stated that in a few weeks the front in favour fell from 90 per cent to 70 per cent, meaning that the more Italians are able to examine the content of the reform, the more they oppose it.

Realistically, the vote will become increasingly much more balanced, even though at the moment very few parties have openly declared their hostility.

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