by Alex Valente
It feels like the international landscape of politics is readying itself for some massive shift, in the geological, tectonic plate sense. We’ve had the rightwing rising across European countries, from Hungary to France, via the UK and Austria, to name a few. We have the constant shitshow that is the US presidential election campaign. We have the war stages of Syria, Lybia, Iraq, with Daesh’s fluctuating relevance and interference. We have the stifling of oppositions and minorities across India, Hungary, Turkey. We could go on.
So what is Italy up to, in all this joyous mess? Italy which is, I’ll remind you, the inadvertent (except for all things geographical) front stage for the Mediterranean migration fluxes, one of the minor players in the EU’s whatever-it-is-it’s-doing-right-now, and trying so very hard to stay internationally relevant — as it has been strenuously doing for the past however many years.
one of the minor players in the EU’s whatever-it-is-it’s-doing-right-now, and trying so very hard to stay internationally relevant
The biggest thing is probably the most obvious too: we have some big things coming up in December, the news of which will probably be drowned out by an eventual rise to power of a malicious orange sexual predator overseas — you know, as opposed to the one we voted in repeatedly on our shores. But yes, the current supposedly centre-left government, led by Matteo Renzi, has finally set the date for what looks like to be the biggest referendum since the one that made Italy into a Republic in 1946: on 4th December, Italians will be asked to back or oppose a reform of the country’s constitution.
(Note to UK readers: a constitution is a written document that sets out how the state is organised and run, boiled down to its fundamental principles. You should look into that.)
The proposed bill looks to amend some of the founding elements of how Italy currently runs, modifying its governing structure from directly elected, symmetric bicameralism to a more indirect, regional representation. If on the one hand the proposed bill allows for a slimming down of numbers of the Senate (from 315 to 95), as well as potentially speeding up legislation and political processes — and trust me, both are dramatically, significantly needed in the bureaucratic love-fest that is this country — the opposition to the reform has some seriously solid reasons too.
First things first, though: Italy is currently overseen by the Camera dei Deputati and the Senato della Repubblica, both directly elected, both through practically identical laws, and both have the power to approve or veto the both ruling Government itself and any proposed legislation (new laws, amendments, or whatever else). In fact, they must both approve every piece of legislation, or no dice. New amendment? Needs both approvals. One side changes a comma? Send it back to the other for approval. Is it a long process? You betcha. It was set up in 1947, to keep everyone under check and to force everyone to play nice with the others. Several governments and committees since the 1980s, on both sides of the political scales, have tried reforming the whole thing, and no one has succeeded yet. The last big failure was under Berlusconi, in 2006, when the referendum tanked his proposed changes (and rightfully so).
One side changes a comma? Send it back to the other for approval. Is it a long process? You betcha.
Now, the problem with referenda. An article on here by Olivia Hanks reminds us of the dangerous nature of this political tool, one that can be ridden as a populist attempt to gain public attention without having to look too closely at what is actually being said. We saw it with Brexit in the UK, and will keep doing so; we are seeing it now in Colombia, with the rejection of the FARC deal; we can see it in Italy, as Renzi promised to leave politics altogether if the December result is negative. His opposition, and not just the actual opposition, but especially the …sigh… anti-establishment party Movimento 5 Stelle were ecstatic. He has since kinda revealed it may not actually be entirely totally the case, but hey, who’s counting.
The populist side of the referendum is not the only thing bothering the electorate, though, as it just joins the rest of the campaigning, made into a never-really-quite amusing mediatic circus, just to figure out how things may play out — one of the best examples is probably the debate between Renzi, who is admittedly a good media and endearing public presence, and Gustavo Zagrebelsky, who is not, but just so happens to be a constitutional judge and scholar. It turned into slogans vs reasoning, ideology vs ideals, and you can guess which one works better on screen.
It turned into slogans vs reasoning, ideology vs ideals, and you can guess which one works better on screen.
Which is a shame, as the No campaign is warning us that, if the changes are applied, the Government gains too much power — as it no longer needs the support of both sides of Parliament — which is not that far from what made Berlusconi’s referendum fail in 2006. The indirect election of the Senate of Regions, as it will become, leaves a strange feeling about the new direction, and as Zagrebelsky put it, something of the ‘oligarchic’. Plus, the reform is haphazardly written and of too complex a language (but not legalese enough, it seems) for a document so seminal in the running of the country, and the question in the referendum itself just a little too confusing. Fun for all the family.
As much as the situation is not as dire as it is in other European countries, Italy is not an insignificant player on the scene, as I off-handedly mentioned in the opening paragraphs. The loudening of the different political factions, particularly of the more extreme, participating in the ‘debate’ is worth being concerned about if the results allow for less control over those in power. The whole Italian situation is worth keeping an eye on, really, and the next couple of months are bound to be crucial for the stability of the EU — and, especially post-Brexit, of the wider international scene.
Featured image © AP Photo/Andrew Medichini