Can Europe Make It?

The referendum that should not be

How Italian democracy took another step toward auto-destruct.

Gianmarco Bertocci
29 September 2020
Piazza S. Babila, Milan, during the bubonic plague of 1630.
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Wikicommons/ Melchiorre Gherardini. Public domain.

This September, 2020, the Italian Republic held the 4th Constitutional Referendum in its history, requiring citizens to approve or otherwise ‘Amendments to articles 56, 57 and 59 of the Constitution regarding the reduction of the number of parliamentarians’ – a reduction of about one third of the seats in the two branches of the Italian parliament, amounting to 345 seats less in the upcoming legislature.

With a turnout of around 51%, "Yes" won in every single Italian region: the lowest percentage of votes in favour of the reform was 59.57%, recorded in the northern region of Friuli Venezia Giulia, while it reached peaks of 75 - 77% in southern regions such as Sicily, Puglia and Campania. In numerical terms, reform was approved by 70% of the 17,913,089 votes, against 30% "No" (7,692,007 votes).

The main difference between this consultation and the previous three (2001, 2006 and 2016) is that there is no attempt here to reform the state structure: in 2001 the modification regulated the relationship between the state and the regions; and in 2016, a radical overhaul of the tasks and functions of the two Chambers was envisaged. This Referendum is a simple numerical cut of eligible representatives, together with unspecified corrective measures that must accompany this to avoid compromising representation: what it means, when and by what criteria this will be achieved has not been explained by anyone.

The main arguments of the promoters of the Reform were threefold: savings on the costs of the political machine, streamlining parliamentary process and alignment with other EU countries.

  • The first argument seems reasonable enough: the fewer people elected, the lower the expense. But this seems irrelavant when the expected savings are about 100 million euros per year, that is just 0.007% of Italian public spending in the same period.
  • The second argument is much less credible, as the reform does not change in any way the cumbersome mechanism with which the Italian parliament has been operating for about 70 years. Indeed, with a reduced number of parliamentarians there is a risk that the legislative process will become even slower.
  • The third argument is laughable: Italy actually has the largest number of elected representatives, but not the largest number (for example, members of the House of Lords, the Bundesrat or the French Senate are not directly elected). After the reform, however, we will become the country with the highest ratio between elected and represented: 1 deputy for every 151,000 citizens, surpassing Spain with its ratio of 1 / 133,000 and even small countries like Cyprus and Malta. So Italy becomes the least representative Parliament in Europe.

What then is the significance of this overwhelming victory for a reform which, at best, will lead to no improvement? This is what I hope to make transparent for anyone outside Italy’s democracy looking in.

Punitive referendum

The reform and the referendum themselves were not the main point, but constitute the first example of a ‘Punitive Referendum’ in Italian history. Let me explain: dating from the Tangentopoli scandal, which marked the end of the so-called First Republic in 1992–94, anti-politics in our country has always been a very strong current. Citizens have already lost faith in representative democracy, in itself never very strong. Subsequently, the twenty years that saw the hegemony of Silvio Berlusconi (him alone that is, rather than a party or any ideology) triggered a clash between political power, in its Executive and Legislative aspects, and the power of the judiciary. 20 years of scandal-investigations (often resolved into thin air) and the "satrapization" of the state around the Berlusconi figurehead have progressively destroyed institutions from within, and more worryingly, in the eyes of its citizens, who have been active accomplices, and not exactly unwitting victims, in this collapse.

After that, a perfect storm gathered: in 2007 the book "La Casta" (The Caste) was released – a collection of investigations by two “Corriere della Sera” journalists, Sergio Rizzo and Gian Antonio Stella, listing the waste and unjustified privileges in Italian politics. Rapidly a bestseller it was oon the Holy Bible of Anti-Politics. Just to be clear – exposing those scandalous behaviors fulfils a sacrosanct journalistic duty. But at the same time, the book completely lacks a comparative analysis when it comes to the Italian public debt, for example, so that citizens have been left with an impression that eliminating that “waste”, stolen goods could somehow have been "redistributed”, in 2008 especially, when the global crisis reached Italy and plunged the whole country under serious economic trauma. From that moment on, the problem of reducing the "costs of politics" became the central issue for all, and especially for the 5 Star Movement, emerging in those years, led by the comedian Beppe Grillo and the property (yes, property, of Casaleggio Associated, a small company founded by Gianroberto Casaleggio and now owned by his son Davide) which thanks to this rhetoric succeeded, without any other type of policy programme, to take 40% of the votes in the 2018 elections, by proposing this kind of “reform”.

This brief history leads us to the first problem: in Italy there is only one, big, transversal "Demagogical Party", no matter whether it has the ferocious, xenophobic snout of the Northern League, the plump, sly face of the Democratic Party or the slimy, double-dealing aspect of the Movement 5 Stars: all the major Italian parties agreed on this reform because the citizens wanted publicly to "punish politicians". That was the purpose of this “reform” from the beginning. The few, small parties that tried to oppose the reform were quickly silenced by a crowd that, as in the ancient Roman amphitheaters, shouted "Iugula! Iugula!" (Cut his throat) at the gladiators.

The media system, unfamiliar with the role of the press as a monitor of institutions, since it had simply aligned itself with the general trend since 2007 – there was no authoritative voice that could be raised against this use of political power to gestate self-seving electoral propaganda. All the eminent constitutionalists who, only 4 years ago, had criticised previous attempts at reform and spoken openly of "fascism" (sic), now in the face of this opprobrium went into hiding or had other things to do. Journalists from Italy’s mainstream media, for their part, simply let the promoters of the reform sit in front of the cameras, telling lies without contradiction, since they too, in the end, have based their careers on popularity rather than doing journalism. Standing by the victors against whoever seems to be the enemy of the moment, is always the right thing to do if you want to preserve your appeal to the public.

The fact that this form of "oclocracy" must find a scapegoat for people’s problems if it is to maintain power means that publicly whipping that scapegoat has become a norm accepted and shared by the vast majority of politicians, media journalists and citizens.

This is decidedly worrying. We could call it the ‘Politics of the Infamous Column’ (from the title of the classic essay ‘A History of the Column of Infamy’ in which one of Italy’s most famous writers, Alessandro Manzoni, describes the story of two alleged infectors, unjustly accused of having spread the plague in Milan in 1630, who were sentenced to death).

Modern democracies have worked over the last century to ensure that the power of the "majority" could not compromise the rights or dignity of minorities. Strange as it sounds to say it, politicians and rich people, even those who are not exactly respectable, do constitute a minority. There is no difference between those who accuse the politicians or the powerful on duty of being "ontologically" corrupt and those who accuse immigrants of being thieves, or various minorities of being criminals – with the same motivation. If we consider ourselves democrats, and therefore supporters of the rule of law, we cannot endorse angry mob behaviour, not even against those who we believe deserve it. If we let this state of affairs take over, sooner or later we will be the victims ourselves, in the centre of the arena with the people baying for our heads.

For several years, Italy has taken this dangerous path towards the abyss, and this referendum without any logic other than to satisfy a popular "blood lust" is yet another piece of a mosaic that is made more disturbing at each new sacrifice. As Elias Canetti wrote in his book “Crowd and Power”: “A murder shared with many others, which is not only safe and permitted, but indeed recommended, is irresistible to the great majority of men.”

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