Could Matteo Renzi leave a legacy as a constitutional reformer?

By | 18th September 2015
One of three original copies, now in the custody of Historical Archives of the President of the Republic
One of three original copies, now in the custody of Historical Archives of the President of the Republic (source of the picture: Wikipedia)
One of the things which may mark the success or the (at least partial) failure of Matteo Renzi’s cabinet is the constitutional bill which is going to be debated by Italian senators during the next few weeks and very likely voted around mid-October.
Despite some positive figures in the recent weeks, there are still many ups and downs as regards Renzi’s record on economy and on social issues. His school reform has just started being implemented and we will see if it will prove itself to be popular or not. His coalition is divided on a bill introducing civil unions while immigration and refugees crisis make the headlines in Italy just as in many other European countries. However, there is an area in which Renzi may in less than a year time reach his objectives and, perhaps positively, mark his government experience: constitutional reform. The new electoral law of the Chamber of Deputies (Italy’s lower house) has already been approved four months ago, and it will come into force in July 2016. I am a bit critical of this law because a) it is majority assuring under any possible circumstance (a thing that is impossible in any major Western country, as far as I know) and b) because I have a preference, for a number of reasons, for single-member constituencies.
If Renzi succeeds in getting his constitutional Bill approved by the Senate without any amendment (the bill has already passed the Chamber vote), then there will be a 3-month pause and there will be a second reading in both the houses of Parliament. Indeed, the procedure for changing the Constitution is as follows:

Laws amending the Constitution and other constitutional laws shall be adopted by each House after two successive debates at intervals of not less than three months, and shall be approved by an absolute majority of the members of each House in the second voting.

Said laws are submitted to a popular referendum when, within three months of their publication, such request is made by one-fifth of the members of a House or five hundred thousand voters or five Regional Councils. The law submitted to referendum shall not be promulgated if not approved by a majority of valid votes.

A referendum shall not be held if the law has been approved in the second voting by each of the Houses by a majority of two-thirds of the members. (Article 138 of the Italian Constitution)

As you may easily realise by yourself, changing the Constitution is not – as it should not be – an easy task.
During Monti’s cabinet, a constitutional bill on budget breakeven was approved, but the electoral law remained unchanged. Monti’s predecessor, Silvio Berlusconi, succeeded in changing the electoral law in 2005, but in 2006 he lost a referendum on his vast constitutional reform. Centre-left government in the ‘90s could approve a change of the part of the Constitution regarding regional powers and functions, but could not do anything as for the electoral law – and, actually, a referendum in 1999 came near to introduce in Italy a FPTP system, but, still, it missed the target for few votes. Basically, the pattern of Italy’s national institutions has been substantially left unchanged since 1948 and nobody has ever been able to carry forward both a deep constitutional change and a new electoral system, despite the huge number of claims and attempts made since the ‘80s.
The so-called ddl Boschi (Boschi bill, named after Maria Elena Boschi, minister of constitutional reforms and relations with parliament) would change functions and composition of the Senate, which would become very similar to the Austrian Bundesrat and would no longer have the power to vote on confidence or no-confidence motions, as well as on a number of bills (with respect to which it can only propose changes). Currently, Italy is one of the few countries in Europe where both the houses have exactly the same powers: every house can undo what the other has decided to do. The bill, if approved, would also raise the threshold for the election of the President, would introduce citizen-initiated legislative and advisory referendums (while, currently, citizens can only ask for law-repealing referendums), would abolish provinces (or, at least, they would no longer be constitutionally necessary) and would give back some regional powers to the central government. Although the bill was already approved by the Senate (which changed the original government proposal), it has eventually been amended again by the lower house; so, it needs a further approval by the Senate in order to go to the second reading.
Apart from some details (for example, under the new constitution, only the Chamber of Deputies would have to vote on the declaration of state of war, a thing I would revert since the new electoral system is majority assuring in any possible case; I would have granted the prime minister the power to dismiss ministers from his cabinet; phrasing is a bit limp in some parts), it is a reform on which I quite agree. Things for Renzi, however, are not that easy. Look at the current composition of the Senate:
So, Renzi seems to have a majority to go through this stage and to the second reading. However, there are three elements to consider (I am ignoring arguments over technicalities and procedures):
a) the People’s Liberal Alliance and Autonomies group (i.e. MPs who recently left Forza Italia in order to support some of Renzi’s proposals) will support the constitutional bill;
b) 28 Democratic senators have signed amendments and publicly requested to change the bill – specifically, they want the Senate to be directly elected;
c) thanks to an automatic generator software, filibustering methods have been deployed at large, at the moment: a Northern League senator has introduced hundreds of thousands of amendments and is planning to introduce further millions of them.
Do the maths and you will notice that if all rebel Democrats vote against the bill, then the game is over and Renzi will be in a big (political) trouble, for much of his reputation has been put at stake on this reform. However, if he does not fail, and if by the end of 2016 the Italian Constitution will be largely modified, Renzi’s coalition will have been the first Italian leader able, after thirty years or so of unsuccessful attempts, to deeply reshape the Italian institutional pattern, both at a constitutional level and as regards the electoral system. Renzi The Scrapper becoming a constitutional father – that would be definitely a remarkable legacy for a politician who is just 40 years old, and a bitter pill for many of the old Democratic leaders to swallow.
I just hope he and his party do not end up messing up things at one point.

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