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Symposium | Introduction | Reducing the Size of the Italian Parliament: Lights and Shadows of a Controversial Constitutional Amendment


[Editor’s Note: I-CONnect is pleased to feature a four-part symposium on the upcoming Italian constitutional referendum on the reduction of members of the Parliament.  This symposium is organized by Antonia Baraggia, who has written today’s Introduction to the symposium.]


Antonia Baraggia, Assistant Professor of Comparative Law, University of Milan.

On 20 and 21 September, Italy will hold a referendum to confirm or reject a constitutional reform modifying articles 56, 57 and 59 of the Italian Constitution. The key aspect of the reform is to reduce the number of deputies from 630 to 400, and the number of senators from 315 to 200.

In accordance with article 138 of the Constitution, the referendum was sought by 1/5 of the members of the Senate (71 Senators) after the reform had been approved twice by both chambers, but without a supermajority of 2/3 in both chambers in the second vote.

It is not the first time reducing the size of the Italian Parliament has been put on the table of constitutional reform – all previous efforts have failed. This is the first time, though, the issue is not part of a wider reform program, but – seemingly – it is a tiny, one could say “surgical” reform. 

Even though the reform appears to be quite modest and merely technical, it does touch on the principle of representation. And this principle is already under pressure for several different reasons, such as the predominance of the executive in times of crisis and the role of other subjects, notably experts and technical entities, in the decision-making process. 

Moreover, the rationale behind the proposal differs quite starkly from other reform attempts to tackle the inefficiencies of the Italian parliamentary system, which has proven – more than ever during the COVID-19 crisis – to be quite weak compared to the executive. 

At the start of this legislature in 2018, when the Five Star Movement was allied with the Northern League, one of the flagship points in the former’s program of governance was to reduce the number of parliamentarians, partly to cut the cost of parliament and partly as a symbolic move to punish the political ‘elite’. Even when the ruling coalition changed, as the Five Star Movement allied with the Democratic Party, this issue remained on the ruling agenda and it was voted for by 533 members of the Chamber of Deputies (88% of the assembly).

The reform is inspired by typical populist, anti-elite rhetoric and by the idea of punishing the inefficient political class. This is part of the manifesto of the Five Star Movement, and it has subsequently been generally sponsored by the main parties in the various government coalitions.

Looking at this specific origin, the reform seems to reflect the contingency of anti-elite sentiment rather than a more general constitutional design (Cerrina Feroni). In other words, this reform is dominated by the overlap between everyday politics and “higher law-making”, a problematic feature that should also be seen in the light of the relationship between constitutional change and populism in a broader comparative perspective. 

Plus, the nature of the reform begs the questions whether it is right to modify the Constitution – even a small part – without an overall vision and without a relevant functional objective (Pisaneschi).

However, on the other side, this constitutional reform can be seen as the first step on the road to more general constitutional changes, addressing the dysfunctionalities of the Italian parliamentary system, as for example the redundancy of the current perfect bicameralism, a unicum in the comparative landscape. According to this view, a wider constitutional change could be implemented incrementally in the future, after the first “breach” with the reduction in the number of parliamentarians (GrassoLupo). Moreover, the real impact of the reform will depend on its future implementation, through the reform of the electoral law and of the parliamentary Standing Orders (Lupo).

Thus, it is clear there is a clash between two different conceptions of constitutional change: on the one side, constitutional change is seen as the ultimate expression of higher law-making, reflecting shared values within a country; on the other, it is viewed as an incremental activity which can be implemented and constructed over time in multiple, even small, steps (Catelani).

In the light of the importance of the constitutional issues raised by the reform, a rich, lively debate has opened up among Italian constitutional scholars as to the reasons for voting yes or no. Interestingly, on the contrary, the debate is quite poor among the general public and the reform at stake has failed to “capture the constitutional imagination of Italian citizens” (Goldoni).

The current Symposium will feature three contributions by Italian legal scholars who address the main aspects of the reform and the upcoming referendum – elements that I have only briefly touched on.

We have asked Professor Carlo Fusaro and Professor Francesca Rosa to explain their arguments for and against the reform.

The Italian reform case is made even more complex by the use of a ‘confirmatory referendum’, thus calling into question the role of the popular will, which could create further division in a context of resentment toward the political elite and its failure to address the needs of the Italian society. 

This specific, but very intriguing aspect, will be addressed in this Symposium by Professor Francesco Palermo, who argues that “no matter the outcome, after the referendum politics will be (even) weaker, and society will be (ever more) split”.

We are grateful to Carlo Fusaro (University of Firenze), Francesca Rosa (University of Foggia) and Francesco Palermo (University of Verona) for their contributions, which will be published in the days ahead.

Suggested Citation: Antonia Baraggia, Symposium – Introduction: Reducing the Size of the Italian Parliament: Lights and Shadows of a Controversial Constitutional Amendment, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Sept. 13, 2019, at: http://www.iconnectblog.com/2020/09/symposium-introduction-reducing-the-size-of-the-italian-parliament-lights-and-shadows-of-a-controversial-constitutional-amendment

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Published on September 13, 2020
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