Italy's referendum farewell

Mario Rossi Sarah Pozzoli
27 June 2006

Italy's national referendum on 25-26 June 2006 was not the fiasco many observers feared. But the result, clear as it was, does little to resolve the many problems the country faces in these (still) early days of its new centre-left government.

The final result of the vote is indeed decisive. 61.7% rejected plans to boost the powers of the prime minister (against those of the president) and the regions (against those of the central government in Rome), while only 38.3% approved. The turnout was 52.3%, quite high by Italian referendum standards (a referendum on constitutional change in 2001 attracted just 34.1% of voters).

The two main issues (see box) were only part of the most radical constitutional-reform proposals since 1948 (no less than fifty articles out of 139 were involved). Thus, Italians have said a triple farewell:

  • to constitutional change for the foreseeable future
  • to the last, exhausting electoral campaign of 2006 (following the 9-10 April general election and the 28-29 May local elections)
  • to the argument of the previous centre-right government, led by the media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi, that such a reform was needed to provide greater political stability to a country that has had sixty-one governments since 1945.

Italians' decision in the referendum to turn a page in their political history seems unambiguous. But this very fact leaves the new government with no escape now from responsibility for addressing the major, unresolved economic and political issues confronting it.

Italy held a national referendum on 25-26 June 2006 on a package of constitutional-reform proposals introduced by the previous centre-right government of Silvio Berlusconi (which narrowly lost the general election of 9-10 April). The main proposals Italians were asked to vote on were:

– to give the prime minister the power to hire and fire ministers, dissolve parliament and determine the general direction of government policy

– to give Italy's regions the control over education, healthcare, law and order

– to reduce the powers of the president

– to give a dominant role to the chamber of deputies (the lower house of parliament, which at present has powers equal to those of the senate, the upper house)

– to turn the Senate into a federal body handling regional issues

– to reduce the number of senators from 315 to 252, and deputies from 630 to 500 (from 2016)

Victory, defeat, and beyond

There are three significant points to make about this referendum and its result.

First, the new centre-left government (which, with the support of many constitutional experts, campaigned for a "no" vote, on the grounds that the package was an awful mess and would prove costly to implement) will itself be unable to implement any broad institutional reform, even though the new prime minister Romano Prodi pledged that a dialogue on constitutional changes would continue.

This is both because radical-left parties (part of the government's coalition) are against such reforms, and because of the tiny majority the coalition has in parliament. The only way to carry through reform would be if the government was able to reach agreement with the centre-right opposition, or part of it (the devolution of more powers to the regions is the political raison d'etre of the Lega Nord [Northern League, Umberto Bossi's party]). This will be very difficult to achieve, but it is not impossible; in the 1990s the centre-left politician (now foreign minister) Massimo D'Alema said that the Northern League could be considered a "rib" of the left.

It's worth pointing out that Italy has been discussing the need for constitutional change for the last twenty-three years. Since 1983, three commissions have been invited to produce reports on the issue: the first (1983) was led by the liberal Aldo Bozzi; the second (1992) by the Christian Democrat and former prime minister Ciriaco De Mita, and then by the communist and former chamber of deputies' president Nilde Lotti; the third (1997) by Massimo D'Alema. None of them has been followed through; nothing has happened.

Second, the result confirms the weakness of the centre-left coalition in the richer northern regions (in Lombardia and Veneto – which make up one third of the national GDP – the "yes" side won, with the exceptions of Milan and Venezia). The "no" vote was also substantial in the poorer southern regions, such as Calabria (82.5%), Basilicata (76.9%) and Campania (75.3%), which are hugely dependent on tax revenues that come from the north; a vote based on fear that the changes could worsen the quality of hospitals (already a disaster).

Third, it was another humiliation for the centre-right coalition after its general-election and local-election defeats. This confirms the incapability of Forza Italia (Berlusconi's party and the biggest Italian party with around 24% of the votes in the last general elections) to mobilise its electorate. By the same token, the result gave a boost to the newly appointed centre-left government – much-needed in light of its timid political record in its first six weeks in office.

Romano Prodi's challenge

On the morrow of the April general election, it was already clear that the Romano Prodi's government would not have an easy life. This was already evident in the wafer-thin majority it secured in the senate, in the various political shades (of nine different parties) that compose the coalition, and in the fact that the government took nearly five weeks to form after the election itself.

Sarah Pozzoli is a Milan-based journalist who writes for La Repubblica (Affari & Finanza) , the monthly magazine Valori, and other publications.

Mario Rossi is economics editor for the monthly journal Quattroruote. He was economics and politics editor for the daily ItaliaOggi, and has written for the weekly Il Mondo, the monthly magazine Capital and other publications.

Also by Sarah Pozzoli & Mario Rossi in openDemocracy:

"The fall and rise of Silvio Berlusconi"
(April 2005)

"Who rules Italy? " (June 2005)

"Italy's political waiting-room"
(April 2006)

Despite this difficult situation, the prime minister boldly pledged to Italy's new president, Giorgio Napolitano, when taking the oath of office on 17 May: "We can't make mistakes". Since then, six weeks have passed – almost half of the "100-day honeymoon" with the electorate the government can expect – yet Prodi's coalition still lacks clear direction.

This may partly be attributed to its cumbersome size (102 members, the most crowded in Italian history). Before a retreat in Umbria at the beginning of June to agree priorities and communications strategies, Prodi's ministers made many declarations (and denials) about politically "hot" issues such as abortion, cannabis, immigrants, and privatisation. But only two clear decisions emerged from the meeting: ministers should talk as little as possible to journalists, and the interior minister Giuliano Amato (whose feline mind has been rewarded with the nickname dottor sottile [doctor subtle]) should study how to circumvent the need for parliament's approval.

Yet the government still hasn't gone to parliament with anything significant. The only important measure in the works – on energy measures – is on hold. The Berlusconi government's tranche of reforms of justice, schools and public works have been (or are going to be) postponed or cancelled through ministerial or legal decrees. Moreover, disagreements are increasing about many issues, from international policies (such as the mission of Italian forces in Afghanistan) to public infrastructures (especially the building of the Turin-Lyons high-speed railway, which is opposed by local people in the areas affected).

Meanwhile, economic minister Tommaso Padoa-Schioppa has been studying the dire state of the public finances, in order for Prodi to have a clear overview before taking any action. It is expected that the government might be forced into announcing deficit-cutting measures amounting to 8-10 billion euros. If it does so, how will its leaders be able to maintain the firm pledges they made during the electoral campaign to cut payroll taxes and provide family-related incentives?

The Italians' voting season has ended, and attention can return – where for many citizens it has remained in the last three weeks – on the soccer world cup and the fortunes of the Azzurri. But the time of indulgences will soon be over, and – Berlusconi or no – reality-time beckons for the Italian economy and its new political masters.

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