Letter from … Rome

All across Europe, the institutions of representative democracy are under increased pressure from citizens. We are witnessing: the birth and rise of new parties, often populist ones; a growing demand for referendums; a loss of the authority of politics and politicians as well as a change in the role of interest groups and stakeholders. Citizens feel that there is a dramatic decrease in the capacity to take decisions on global challenges by national institutions. Thus, they distrust traditional forms of government and demand to be an active part in decision-making.

In response to this, next month a referendum on constitutional reform is being held here in Italy. The constitutional changes are aimed at making the Italian legislative process simpler and faster. The heart of the reform lies in a new balance in the way laws are approved: if ‘Yes’ prevails, the Senate, which currently has the same powers as the House of Representatives, will be abolished and replaced with a ‘Senate of the Regions’, mainly with consultative powers on the effects of legislation on local administrations. Full legislative power will be left only to the House of Representatives. This will ensure a more orderly legislative process. It will guarantee that the approval of laws will occur according to a predetermined schedule, and it will increase the stability of government.

Since the beginning of the Republican age, Italy has been plagued with chronic instability of governments. This has been due not only to the dysfunctions of Italy’s hypertrophic party system, but also to the fact that the Senate and the House of Representatives correspond to two different electoral bases, in terms of age but also in terms of geographical areas (the Italian constitution provides for the House to be elected on a nationwide basis, while the Senate is elected on a regional basis). The instability of governments over the last 20 years can be mainly put down to the fact that the two bodies, elected under different electoral laws, are meant to do the same job: a recipe that only exacerbated the vagaries of the Italian political system.

The referendum will be an occasion for ‘systemic’ or institutional politics, and chiefly for the Democratic party, which in parliament proposed and fought for the reform, to show that politics, in a time of crisis, can reform itself. This will be evident not only by the fact that parliament passed the reform in the first place, but also by the fact that the reform, following the abolition of the Senate, will cut the number of members of parliament by a third.

The constitutional changes will be an occasion to reinforce Italy’s capacity to play a meaningful role at European level, with a leaner and more predictable legislative process, as well as with stable governments. Finally, the referendum will seal a profound reform process. It will be a Europe-wide test for the crisis of democracy and for the capacity democracy has to renovate and reinvigorate itself without resorting to populism or other forms of extremism.

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Lia Quartapelle is a member of the Italian parliament

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Photo: 10 Downing Street

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