Renzi’s High Stake Gamble in Italian Constitutional Referendum

Renzi’s High Stake Gamble in Italian Constitutional Referendum
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi during the EU Summit in Brussels on Oct. 21, 2016. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

A referendum on constitutional reforms that would greatly increase the power of the central government in Rome will determine the political future of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.

Renzi has vowed to step down if the country votes down the referendum on Dec. 4.

According to its supporters, the constitutional reforms are needed to make Italy’s government function better. Italy’s two houses of parliament currently share equal power, and bills must be passed by both houses in identical form. Political vetoes are often used in both chambers, leading to legislative paralysis. If accepted, the constitutional reform would reduce the power of parliament and reduce its veto rights.

“The legislative process is very lengthy and complicated, and as a result government is very weak, because if the government has support in one chamber but not in the other, it can lose confidence, and the government needs the confidence of both chambers,” said Tommaso Virgili, a researcher at the European Foundation for Democracy.

Italy has experienced 63 governments in 70 years since the birth of the republic in 1946.

The reform bill would also curb the power of the senate by ending direct election of senators and reducing the number of senators from 320 to 100. It would also reduce the powers of Italy’s 20 regions and centralize more decision-making power in Rome.

Critics of the proposed reforms fear it would give too much power to the prime minister.

Renzi is facing opposition both from opposition parties, such as the Five Star Movement led by comedian Beppe Grillo, as well as from within his own Democratic Party. Since Renzi has connected his political future with the referendum, the opposition is set on using it to oust him.

“If the reform doesn’t pass, he will step down, and the opposition is seeing the political opportunity to get rid of Renzi,” Virgili said.

Italy’s constant political crises are compounded by the fact it still hasn’t recovered from the 2008 financial crisis.

Analysts expect the economy to grow only 0.8 percent this year. Italy has suffered from a persistently high unemployment rate, which was at 11.4 percent as of August. 

Public Reaction

Polls show that the country is sharply divided over whether the reforms should be adopted or not.

Filippo, 44, a government worker who lives in Formia, believes the referendum is a political tool used by the Renzi government.

“What he is doing is political blackmail by making himself more important than the Constitution. Renzi is a megalomaniac,” wrote Filippo, who requested to be identified only by his first name, in an email.

Antonello Palmiotto, 42, an engineer and air traffic controller from Brindisi, believes the referendum is purely a power grab by the central government.

“The referendum would not accomplish the goal of reducing the costs of politics as stated by its promoters, but would instead concentrate more and more power in the hands of the prime minister, which is unacceptable,” Palmiotto said.

Claudia Caporusso, 19, who lives in Rome, says she'll vote yes.

“I will surely vote yes because this reform that our nation has been waiting for, for 30 years, will definitely simplify the Italian bureaucratic and legislative process,” Caporusso wrote in an email.

“I hope the Italian people will not throw away Renzi’s efforts,” she wrote.

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