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Political Debate Intensifies in Italy, As Constitutional Referendum Looms

Political Debate Intensifies in Italy, As Constitutional Referendum Looms

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi called for a national referendum on his proposed constitutional reform, scheduled for December 4th of this year. Approaching at a time in which referendums held around the world have produced unpredictable results, and have caused ardent political turmoil (such as with Brexit in the UK and the FARC vote in Colombia), Italy's upcoming vote gives rise to a tense political debate in the scrabble between the supporters of the reforms proposed by the current government and those who oppose them.

The referendum put forward by Renzi and his PD (Partito Democratico) center-left party, proposes to approve the constitutional reform that changes, to a certain extent, the second part of the Italian constitution regarding the organization of the Parliament.

With the overall goal of making the legislative process more rapid and efficient, the reform focuses on the abolition of the current perfect bicameralism occurring in Italy’s Parliament, in which the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies have equal functions and must approve the same text of every bill before it is passed.

In the hopes of ceasing this so-called "navette" process in which bills are passed from one chamber to the other, which significantly slows down the legislative procedure, the reform wants to disempower the Senate by reducing its power and size. By reducing the number of senators from 315 to 100 regional councilors and maintaining that mayors receive no compensation, Renzi argues the Senate will assume a somewhat representative 'regional' role. This would give a voice to local territories, leaving most legislative power to the Chamber of Deputies, whilst significantly reducing costs.

This has been the most debated aspect of the reform, according to Renzi and a number of Italian MPs who have been discussing the need for these changes for the past 30 years, because it will allow for a more rapid and less costly organization of the Parliament. The Prime Minister also argues that the reform will provide Italy with a much-needed political stability, considering there have been 63 governments since the end of WWII.

Additionally, the reform proposes to transfer some legislative power back to the Central Government after it was assigned to the regional political bodies in a constitutional reform that took place in 2000.

The main legislative powers to be transferred back to the Central government fall into the fields of major infrastructural projects, energy plants and tourism, allowing the government to handle and hold decisions on these issues.

From the beginning, Mr. Renzi attributed extraordinary political importance to the outcome of the referendum, to such an extent that he pledged to resign and withdraw from politics if the outcome is negative and the Italian people reject the reform.

This was probably a mistake, given that it provided Renzi's enemies a chance to coalesce against approval of the reform, campaigning for the “No” vote on the referendum as an opportunity to oust him from power. Renzi soon took back what he said and is currently making an effort to depersonalize the referendum, focusing on its importance for the political stability of the country.

As often occurs in Italy, the political struggle prevails on the singular issues and policies and the content of the reform risks being overshadowed by Mr Renzi's opponents who see it as an occasion to discharge his government.

Despite the opposition to the referendum, dominated by constitutionalists who are determined to maintain the status quo and shun any changes to the constitution, Mr. Renzi's reform seems to be an adequate formula to shake up an undoubtedly stagnant political and parliamentary situation.

At his final state dinner on October 18th, President Obama complimented premier Renzi on his political career and endorsed the yes vote to the referendum. Obama stated that Renzi has contributed positively with his leadership to the diplomacy of the EU, and that a positive outcome to the constitutional referendum would be good for Italy. Those frustrated by decades of political stagnation would surely agree with President Obama, and should vote “yes” to the referendum, understanding its potential to reform the system.

- Ludovica Grieco

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