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Italian constitutional referendum: next win for ‘populism’?

 

 

By Dick Nichols

 

November 30, 2016 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — “The mother of all wars”: that’s how, in the September issue of the left magazine Critica Marxista, constitutional law professor Claudio De Fiores described the campaign around Italy’s referendum on amending the country’s 1948 constitution.

 

It was no exaggeration. As voting day (December 4) approaches, prominent Italian politicians opposed to the change are talking about prime minister Matteo Renzi, its lead supporter, in these terms:

 

“Renzi is behaving like a wounded sow who attacks whatever she sees.” (Beppe Grillo, leader of the Five Star Movement (M5S), presently running neck-and-neck with Renzi’s Democratic Party (PD) in opinion polls).

 

“We will not let this incompetent little despot ruin Italy. Renzi is someone capable of swindling the devil himself. First, ‘No’ to the referendum and then rebellion in the streets against the man who has brought us to the crassest centralism.”(Umberto Bossi, former leader of the xenophobic Northern League)

 

“Renzi is the typical example of that caste of professional politicians that he says he wants to fight.” (Media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi, leader of the centre-right Forza Italia and former prime minister who once named Renzi as his worthy successor and who had his Mediaset empire back Italy’s present leader against rivals inside the PD.)

 

As for Renzi, he is portraying himself as Italy’s last hope, a St George giving his all against the gerontocratic oligarchy of corrupt politicians whose inertia has sabotaged social and economic advance for more than 30 years.

 

“What you have to decide,” he told the crowd on November 6 at the seventh edition of the Leopolda (a three-day “festival of ideas” launched when Renzi was mayor of Florence), “is whether you sing a song of hope for your children or we resign ourselves to the culture of whingeing and whining that has brought Italy to a standstill.”

 

He added: “The December 4 referendum is not between two Italys because Italy is one and indivisible… But there are two different leadership groups: those for ‘Yes’ have a project. Those for ‘No’, well, if you put them in a room and asked them to come out with an idea in common you would never see them again.”

 

If the polls are accurate, Renzi has his work cut out. At the time of writing (November 28) the No case holds a 5%-7% lead, even though over 20% of those polled say they are still to decide. This number has come down from as high as 40%, with the final opinion polls allowed (up until November 18) showing more passing to the side of No than Yes as people make up their mind.

 

European importance

 

The referendum campaign is not only generating passionate debate across Italy and among the four million Italians living abroad (these have already started voting and many have posted photos of their vote on the social networks, including from places as far away as Antarctica).

 

Many non-Italians also feel compelled to take sides on this Italian political event. This includes important people like Barack Obama and Angela Merkel (100% behind Renzi) and important mouthpieces like the New York Times and the Financial Times (also committed Yes supporters).

 

On the other hand, an open letter from figures on the European left, including former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, states that “the fight for democracy is a great battle that involves all of us. It will be up to the people of Italy to decide. We say only that if we were Italians we would with great conviction vote ‘No’.”

 

The proposal

 

At first glance, some of the constitutional changes proposed might seem reasonable enough. For example, the National Council of Economy and Labour (CNEL), a body set up under the constitution when it was adopted in the aftermath of World War II would be abolished. The CNEL is a union-business entity charged with giving the national government and parliament advice on labour and industrial matters.

 

According to the Yes case website, the CNEL has never worked because “the unions, the business associations and the professional bodies haven’t needed the CNEL to make their voices and demands heard”. Even some supporters of the No case, like the Justice and Freedom association (which sees itself as “the missing link between the best of social ferment and official politics”) describes the CNEL as a “zombie”.

 

Then there’s the central amendment proposed — to reduce the powers of the Italian Senate so as to end a system where it and the Chamber of Deputies (the lower house) have exactly the same prerogatives.

 

The Senate would become a house of review, as in all other European countries with a two-chamber system, be reduced from 315 to 100 senators and be unable to bring down governments with motions of no confidence. That power that would be the Chamber’s alone.

 

If this were all that were being proposed, the referendum might win easily. For example, a large-sample (2279) survey conducted over the internet by three Italian university researchers showed overwhelming support — including from a majority of No supporters — for reducing the number of well-paid politicians living nicely in Rome. Italy has 952 members of the national parliament, the biggest legislative body in the world after China and the United Kingdom.

 

Another proposal that might win majority support is the one to open more space more citizens’ initiative bills, even though the minimum number of signatures needed to have these considered by parliament increases from 50,000 to 150,000, and the number of signatures needed to force a referendum increases from 500,000 to 800,000.

 

Take it or leave it

 

But these changes form only part of a package that Italian voters will have to accept or reject as a whole. It includes a proposal that even a majority of Yes voters consulted in the survey mentioned oppose: the Senate would no longer be directly elected but formed by representatives nominated by Regional Councils (like state parliaments in Australia), and this through a process that’s still to be made clear. Of the 100 senators, five would be nominated by the President of the Republic, 74 would come from the regions and 21 would be mayors.

 

In addition, the proposed change would set time limits to the process of passing legislation, including a “high-speed lane” that the government could use for any legislation it deemed urgent. The powers of regional parliaments would also be reduced: a “superiority clause” would give the central government the power to override the regions in cases of national interest and regional delegates would no longer take part in the election of the President of the Republic.

 

The abolition of the provinces, administrative districts covering areas larger than local municipalities but smaller than the regions, is also foreshadowed.

 

Undemocratic election law

 

However, probably more important than all of these specific measures is the fact that their full impact cannot be measured apart from Italy’s newly enacted electoral law, the most undemocratic in the European Union.

 

This law (called “Italicum”) creates a two-round system, with any party winning 40% of the vote on the first round being assigned 340 seats in the 630-seat Chamber (54%) — a guaranteed majority. In the likely case that no party wins 40%, this bonus would go to the winner of a run-off ballot between the two lists most voted in the first round.

 

This winner’s bonus is easily the biggest in any European electoral system — more than the Greek 50-seat bonus in a 300-seat parliament: unlike “Italicus”, the Greek arrangement does not guarantee a majority of seats to the party winning the relative majority.

 

With support for Italy’s main political blocs presently running at around 30% for the centre-left PD and its allies, 30% for the M5S and 25%-30% for the presently divided centre-right (Forza Italia, Brothers of Italy and Northern League), this electoral law would mean that a bloc with under 30% of the popular vote could end up with a majority of seats in the Chamber.

 

That is not just a theoretical possibility. The 2013 general Italian election, run under an even worse version of the same type of election law, saw the centre-left around the PD win 54.7% of the seats with 29.55% of the vote, while the centre-right, with 29.18% of the vote won 19.8% of the seats and M5S with 25.56% of the vote won 17.3% of the seats.

 

In addition, the “bonus deputies” created by the system would be chosen by the leader(s) of the winning party. According to political scientists Gianfranco Pasquino and Andrea Capussela, “a majority of the Chamber’s deputies — probably around 60% (up to 66% if the Northern League runs alone and becomes a fourth large list) — will be directly chosen by the political parties . Only a minority will be truly chosen by voters.”

 

The system would turn Italian general elections into once-every-five-year plebiscites on the leaders of the parties, with the election of MPs only a by-product of the formation of a government guaranteed a majority for the following five years.

 

According to the No case, when combined with the constitutional changes being proposed, such a government, based on its fictitious majority, would then have the power to: influence the approval of constitutional reforms; declare a state of war; override the powers of the regions; impose deadlines for votes on legislations; decide parliamentary regulations, including those governing the rights of the opposition(s); and change the rules governing the election for key posts such as the President of the Republic and the members of the Constitutional Court.

 

Well-known Italian judge and professor of jurisprudence Luigi Ferrajoli made this assessment: “A win for the Yes case when coupled with the new electoral law would ratify the transformation of our parliamentary democracy into a system completely centered on the executive.

 

“Parliament would be turned into a mere rubber stamp: in practice, instead of the government having to gain and maintain the confidence of parliament, we would have parliamentarians having to gain the confidence of the government if they didn’t want to risk parliament being dissolved and the loss of their seats.”

 

Why this fight now?

 

As if all this were not enough, supporters of the No case are just as critical of the methods used to bring the referendum question before the Italian electorate. According to Valentino Larcinese, professor of public policy at the London School of Economics, “the conditions that led to its parliamentary approval are very different from the conditions that led to the 1948 constitution. The proposed reform is not the outcome of an open parliamentary deliberation but rather of party discipline and short-term political considerations. This method to change a constitution deserves to be rejected in itself and independently of the content of the reform.”

 

To begin with, Renzi got his take-it-or-leave-it referendum before the Italian people by having it passed six times through the Senate and Chamber by a majority that was elected under an electoral law later found to be unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court, but did not order a rerun of the election.

 

That electoral law, later dubbed “Porcellum” (roughly, Dirty Trick Statute), was introduced by the Berlusconi government in 2006, only to be ruled unconstitutional in 2014 because the gap between votes won and seats awarded was too great and because the “closed lists” presented by the parties prevented voters from choosing the individual candidates they preferred.

 

Next, according to the No case, “the reform of the constitution became an object of trade-offs and political advance. Proof of that is that the Seventeenth Legislative Session has seen a record number of transfers from one parliamentary group to another—325 migrations involving 246 MPs.”

 

Why did Renzi adopt such crash-through-or-crash methods, which have alienated people from every part of the Italian political spectrum, including a significant minority within the PD itself?

 

The basic reason is that the prime minister and his backers see the 1948 Italian constitution, adopted after the defeat of Nazism and Fascism, as the most important roadblock in the way of reversing the country’s economic decline. This is marked by high and increasing public debt (130% of GDL), stagnating productivity, wages 12% below their 2007 level and a widening balance of payment deficit.

 

Their diagnosis of the “Italian malaise” was notoriously voiced by a 2013 paper (“The Euro Area adjustment: about half-way there”) by the JP Morgan Economic Research team, a paper that has itself become a point of debate in the referendum campaign.

 

“The political systems in the [Mediterranean] periphery were established in the aftermath of dictatorship, and were defined by that experience. Constitutions tend to show a strong socialist influence, reflecting the political strength that left wing parties gained after the defeat of fascism. Political systems around the periphery typically display several of the following features: weak executives; weak central states relative to regions; constitutional protection of labor rights; consensus building systems which foster political clientalism; and the right to protest if unwelcome changes are made to the political status quo. The shortcomings of this political legacy have been revealed by the crisis.”

 

Neoliberalism in Italy has been trying to act on this diagnosis since the early 1980s, when Socialist Party premier Bettino Craxi declared war, Renzi-style, on “the difficulty of governance, the domination of the rule of the slow, the rotten timing in decision-making processes.”

 

Since then Italian governments have chipped away at labour and union rights, the welfare state, public spending and the powers of the regions without achieving anything like a Thatcher-style breakthrough. Moreover, whenever they have gone for the big hit, the assault has backfired: the last example being Berlusconi’s 2006 referendum for constitutional change, lost 38.7% to 61.3%.

 

Crashing through or crashing?

 

Renzi and his backers judged that the time was right for another attack on what he calls the “caste” for two reasons: the very intractability of the crisis itself — inviting a “shock doctrine” style campaign for a political system that can “get things done” — and his own popularity. The May 2014 European elections saw the PD achieve an astonishing (for Italian politics) 40.8% of the vote. This was over 10% more than its result in the 2013 general elections (before Renzi was installed as PD leader and prime minister in an internal party coup).

 

On this basis Renzi launched the referendum campaign in a very personal, even narcissistic, style — such that the message broadcast was essentially that a vote for constitutional change was a vote for Renzi and his government and if it wasn’t adopted he would leave politics.

 

However, 2016 is not 2014. Over the past two years the Renzi government has introduced a range of legislation aimed at “freeing up” the labour market and reducing welfare “dependence”. The centerpiece of this program was the Jobs Act which in December 2014 saw 1.5 million workers strike and protest.

 

Since then, Renzi’s popularity, while still higher than that of the political old guard, has been waning. The consequence has been that his decision to run the Yes case as a vote of confidence in his government began to alarm other supporters of the Yes case — especially after polling revealed that just mentioning the fact that the constitutional changes were supported by the government reduced support for them.

 

Pushed by Yes supporters like former president Giorgio Napolitano, the prime minister then changed his tune: “You don’t have to like me to vote Yes” is his latest tactical adjustment as polling day approaches.

 

Renzi’s main line of attack remains the heterogeneous nature of the groups in the No camp, the mutually contradictory arguments coming from them and the fact that they have no alternative to propose. At a November 18 rally in Matera in the southern region of Basilicata he joked:

 

“In this referendum campaign we see a rabble of everyone against a single person … An amazing game of couples has emerged. We’ve brought together Berlusconi and Travaglio [author of works exposing the sources of Berlusconi’s wealth] — they didn’t know they loved each other; [former prime minister Massimo] D’Alema and Grillo — one supporting politics, the other anti-politics; [former leader of Left Ecology Freedom Nichi] Vendola and [right-wing Brothers of Italy leader Ignazio] La Russa.

 

“It’s so beautiful. We are better than Maria De Filippi [presenter of the popular TV show Italy’s Got Talent!]

 

The forces supporting the No case are certainly heterogeneous. They range from the far right neo-fascist groups around the Casa Pound [named after pro-fascist American poet Ezra Pound], through all the mainstream right and centre-right parties, to a minority of the PD (including former leaders resentful of Renzi’s ascent), to the now-right, now-left, always confused M5S, to all the formations, parliamentary and extra-parliamentary, to the left of the PD.

 

Each has their own predictable reasons for opposing the changes, with the Northern League and the neo-fascist right claiming that Renzi’s amendments will make it easier for him to flood the country with migrants, impose political correctness from Rome and trample on the rights of the regions (especially in the north).

 

The arguments of the left focus on the attacks on democratic rights, citizen control of government and worker and union rights and freedoms. The slogan at their October 22 “No Renzi Day” protest in Rome, attended by up to 40,000, was “For A Social No!”

 

The trade union movement is split over the reform, with the metalworkers´ union FIOM leading support for the No case from inside the Italian General Confederation of Labour (CGIL) even while the CGIL general secretary stresses that the confederation has no official line on the referendum.

 

The Italian Confederation of Workers Unions (CSIL), with a Catholic background, is supporting the Yes case, while the social-democratic Italian Workers Union (UIL) is leaving the decision to members.

 

The No case has also captured prominent members of the Italian elite, most notably former “technocrat” prime minister Mario Monti (2011-13). In a November 25 letter to the Financial Times, Monti, even while calling on Renzi to stay on as prime minister if defeated, said his support for the No case was based on two concerns.

 

Firstly, the “the new rules on co-operation between the Chamber of Deputies and a reformed Senate … is likely to make the whole legislative process cumbersome and unpredictable” and, secondly, “incompetence and corruption have for many years now been problems at the regional and local level” and “proposed changes to the Senate … would see its members nominated by regional parliaments, and drawn from members of those bodies.”

 

A mass movement for ‘No’

 

If the No case wins it will owe a lot to the grassroots movement that has sprung up to oppose Renzi’s package. With over 700 local groups in Italy and overseas, the movement has been critical in counteracting the Yes case’s predominance of the commercial media.

 

According to Lidia Menpace, well-known feminist and fighter in the World War II Italian resistance, writing on October 14, “a date on the political calendar is becoming a vehicle for getting enthusiastic about politics again, and not in a way promoted by ‘high’ and ‘elite’ leaderships, but from below, from the people. This is not an ingenuous people that is easy prey to those political banners that reckon they can appropriate them (meaning: the Northern League and Five Stars with their populism), but autonomous — completely organised in self-convened and self-financed committees that swap opinions and suggestions in an ordinary, ‘unofficial’, style.

 

“A new way of doing politics is being born, given that spontaneous answers to the question `What happens after No wins?’ are beginning to be given.”

 

A sign of the strength of the No campaign is that, with the vote less than a week away, the tactics of the establishment forces in Europe are beginning to come apart.

 

On the one hand, the fear campaign is being raised to new heights: a No victory will mean the collapse of up to eight Italian banks according to one report citing anonymous sources that appeared in November 27 Financial Times. Italian bank share prices were tumbling on November 28.

 

The euro itself is under threat, if Financial Times columnist Wolfgang Münchau is to be believed: “If Mr Renzi loses, he has said he would resign, leading to political chaos. Investors might conclude the game is up. On December 5, Europe could wake up to an immediate threat of disintegration.”

 

On the other hand, after months of saying that December 4 will be Italy’s last chance to pull out of its death spiral, some commentators are now reassuring the public they were panicking and that a victory for the No case will not be the end of the world, especially if Renzi withdraws his threat to resign.

 

That is, for sections of the elite, having seen Brexit and Trump, all the talk about December 4 possibly giving ‘populism’ a third victory in 2016 needs to be downplayed. This was the meaning of The Economist breaking ranks with its fellow establishment media in a November 26 editorial entitled “Why Italy should vote no in its referendum”.

 

The editorial said: “The risk of Mr Renzi’s scheme is that the main beneficiary will be Beppe Grillo, a former comedian and leader of the Five Stars Movement (M5S), a discombobulated coalition that calls for a referendum on leaving the euro. It is running just a few points behind Mr Renzi’s Democrats in the polls and recently won control of Rome and Turin. The spectre of Mr Grillo as prime minister, elected by a minority and cemented into office by Mr Renzi’s reforms, is one many Italians—and much of Europe—will find troubling.”

 

Clearly, for some of the elite there are worst things in life than losing a referendum on what The Economist calls “constitutional tinkering”, so long as “Italy gets back to real reform”. For any democrat, on the other hand, a win for the No case will be a win for people’ rights — in Italy and across Europe as a whole.

 

However, such a win would also place enormous challenges before the weak and divided Italian left as it struggles to advance its agenda against that of its “allies” in the No campaign — the xenophobic and racist right. The insurgent mass movement that has arisen to try to defeat Renzi’s plan — full of a new generation of enthusiastic activists — will be an important basis for its sorely needed renewal.

 

Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona.

 

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