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Italians will vote on a reform to create stable governments. But will it work?

The governing coalition proposes to shrink the size of Parliament.

- September 17, 2020

On Sunday and Monday, Italians will vote on whether to reduce the size of Italy’s Parliament. The Italian government had already decided to reduce the size of the Chamber of Deputies — Italy’s rough equivalent of the U.S. House of Representatives — from 630 to 400 seats, while reducing the membership of the Senate from 315 to 200.

This weekend’s constitutional referendum lets Italian citizens decide whether these cuts go ahead. Politicians don’t usually sponsor a referendum that axes their jobs, any more than we’d expect turkeys to vote for Thanksgiving or Christmas. So why did Italian politicians want to do this in the first place, and why does the public now have an opportunity to second-guess this move?

Italy’s current government supports reform

The referendum reflects a campaign promise of the populist Five Star Movement. M5S entered the national legislature in 2013 as an anti-establishment party that wanted to move away from representative democracy (in which politicians are elected to make choices) to more direct forms of democracy (in which citizens have more opportunity to decide for themselves). Democratic Party leader Matteo Renzi, who became prime minister in 2014 on a platform of party renewal, also championed changes to the electoral system.

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In 2019, the two parties joined to form a governing coalition. Reducing the size of Parliament was one of the M5S’s key demands, before they would agree to create a government with an establishment party like the Democrats. The largest opposition party, the League, also supported the change. By October 2019, the measure had passed both houses of Parliament with overwhelming majorities, well beyond the required two-thirds vote of support.

Advocates pointed out that a smaller legislature would mean fewer politicians on the government payroll, potentially saving the country about $300,000 per day. However, critics soon began noting that the savings would be minimal compared to overall government spending, which now totals around $1 trillion per year. There were also worries that fewer legislators would mean more power for lobbyists. And prominent figures from smaller parties claimed that the measure would undermine democracy by silencing their voices.

Here’s why there will be a public vote: Italian constitutional changes must be brought to the public if one-fifth of the members of a chamber of the legislature, or 500,000 voters, or five regional councils request it. In December, senators from Forza Italia, the center-right party of former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, joined with smaller parties and a few rogue senators from the governing parties to reach the one-fifth threshold to call for a popular referendum.

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The measure is still likely to go through

In June, the polls showed about 80 percent of Italians favored the measure, though support narrowed to around 70 percent in early September. However, this still seems to be a clear majority in favor of it. Italian voters have often criticized their government as bloated and overpaid. Even though Americans, on average, make over $20,000 more every year than Italians, Italian legislators are paid $10,000 more than members of the U.S. Congress.

There have only been three prior constitutional referendums in Italian history, and only one has succeeded: the 2001 referendum that transferred certain powers from the central government to the regions. In 2006 and 2016, voters were asked for a simple up-or-down vote on referendums that changed one-third of the articles of the Italian constitution, strengthening the power of the prime minister and weakening the influence of the Senate. Both referendums failed.

My research shows that there was overwhelming support for reducing the number of senators in 2016 — but voters were less happy with proposed measures that weakened the Senate and centralized power in the executive. Furthermore, the prime minister at the time of the 2016 referendum indicated that he would resign if the voters rejected it. This encouraged people who didn’t like the government to vote against the referendum: Voters who were unhappy with the government’s performance at the time were 60 percent less likely to support the referendum.

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September’s referendum, however, presents a more straightforward choice. Italians can vote to reduce the size of the Chamber of Deputies and Senate without having to agree to other changes to the institutional balance of power, or register their approval or disapproval of the government.

The reform will change Italian politics

Since World War II, the Italian Parliament has had delegates from 8 to 13 parties at any given point. That helps explain the long period of governmental instability, as Italy fielded no fewer than 66 different governing coalitions in the past 75 years.

Smaller legislatures mean fewer political parties gain seats. Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte argues that fewer legislators would lead to more efficient decision-making. It would also make parties more cohesive. In the past three years, two former prime ministers have broken away from the Democratic Party to form their own groups — but that might prove difficult to do in a scenario with roughly a third fewer seats.

The current polling suggests that voters would like fewer politicians and more stable politics. Previous changes to the electoral system in the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s did not create stability. We are likely to soon see how the proposed new referendum will deliver.

Matthew E. Bergman is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Vienna affiliated with the Political Economy of Reforms research group.