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  • Zach Roberts

Italian Referendums - Mamma Mia, here we go again?


Considering the fact that we are still feeling the implications of the UK’s last referendum over four years on, it may come as a surprise to many Brits that other European nations still have the confidence to put aspects of their constitutional fabric into the hands of the people. Italy is one of these brave souls and last month their people voted decisively in favour of a government proposal to reduce the number of MPs and Senators in the Italian Parliament.

All constitutional legislation is subject to a nation-wide referendum in Italy, but this is not to say that it’s all been plain sailing. There have been four referenda in the 21st century, with the two prior to last month’s vote having been convincingly voted down by the nation’s voters, 

However, this time the mood in Italy was different, and, spear-headed by the populist 5 Star Movement, a party only established in 2009, the aim this time was clear and simple. Whilst the issue divided Italy, the question put forward to the people was a straight-forward yes or no. No confusing political jargon, no unnecessary add-on clauses, in the eyes of the people there were no strings attached. They either had to vote yes or no. Reduce the size of a bloated parliament or stick to the status quo.

The conclusion, with 70% voting in favour of the reduction, reflects the wider political opinions of not just many Italians, but many across the whole continent. Widely regarded as a populist party, the 5 Star Movement has had quite the rise to power in its ten years of existence, becoming the largest individual party in the Italian Parliament in the last election. It’s an impressive feat considering the UK’s most recent equivalent being Change UK (we all know how that worked out). Like many other populist parties that have swept across Europe, their anti-establishment policies offer a ‘new kind of politics’ to a country that has seen sixty-one governments formed since World War Two and two coalitions in the last two years alone. Even 5 Star members describe themselves as a ‘movement’ rather than a party. It’s a tactic that’s become all too familiar in recent years as parties and MPs attempt to distance themselves from the toxic political environment that has created a significant increase in apathetic voting behaviours.  

5 Star will be hoping that this vote to ‘streamline’ the Italian Parliament gives the party a boost to their current political mandate. The more they appear to be enacting the will of the people, the more election consistency they hope to achieve, especially considering that this referendum was a manifesto promise back in 2018. It is estimated that the total reduction in costs for the taxpayers will be between 285 and 500 million euros per five-year parliamentary term, which may please the electorate especially at a time where money will be tight for the average household. However, opponents have heralded the cost-cutting as ‘petty figures’ and too small a reward for the decrease in democratic representation. While the UK has 2.1 lawmakers per 100,000 of the population, the new changes in Italy would give them just 1.0 per 100,000. With more constituents per MP, there are emerging fears that many would be left disenchanted by the lack of attention from their representative, while they are swamped down with the additional workload.

Although critics have a right to be sceptical, their opposition is only perhaps because the traditional politics that they know is what is actually being threatened. The point of parties like the 5 Star Movement is radical change supported by a strong mandate from the electorate, hence the populist policies and implementation of direct democractic means such as a referendum. Many Italians and perhaps some of the more honest politicians would accept that the current Italian Parliament was bloated and that something needed to be done to at least shake it all up a bit. It is no surprise that many are wary of the implications of a decrease in democratic representation but 5 Star, however, view that as a small price to pay for the sake of modernising the political system. A push for more frequent direct democracy could be on its way following the resounding success of their first attempt. Meanwhile a slimmed-down parliament has less room for people to get in the way of results they want. 

It seems highly unlikely that a party so young, and clearly with such high ambitions, would push for constitutional change purely on the grounds of cutting costs. This could herald the beginning of a wave of change under a coalition desperate to shake the ‘overpaid, overprivileged’ tag stuck to Italian politicians. Silvio Berlusconi and his own Forza Italia party set a precedent for electoral success for relatively young political parties, a path to power that 5 Star will be hoping to follow. Having already survived the collapse of one coalition, they will be hoping that their current partnership can carry through to the next election in 2023. Although as many Italians know all too well, a lot can happen in a year, let alone three.

Image - Flickr (Marco Verch)



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