[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 is the third entry of the symposium, which was kindly organized by Antonia Baraggia. Her introduction is available here.]
—Francesca Rosa, Professor of Comparative Public Law, University of Foggia.
On September 20th and 21st Italian voters will decide whether to confirm the reduction in the number of members of the Italian Parliament: during the current legislature the Parliament passed a constitutional amendment cutting the number of deputies to 400 (from 630) and the number of senators to 200 (from 315). At the same time, the maximum number of life senators is set at 5 (articles 56, 57 and 59 of the Constitution). The root of this constitutional reform is twofold. The first is political and it is linked to the rise of the Five Star Movement and its participation to the government. After March 2018 elections the Five Star Movement was the relative majority party in both Houses of Parliament and consequently became the main ally of the two coalition governments led by Giuseppe Conte since June 2018: Government Conte I (June 2018 – September 2019) in coalition with the Northern League, and Government Conte II (September 2019 to date) in coalition with Partito Democratico (the Italian Democratic Party).
The Five Star Movement has expressed clear anti-establishment positions since the beginning of its political life, harshly criticizing the alleged privileges of the political class (the elite) compared to the rest of the people. As a consequence once it entered the Government it demanded and obtained the reduction in the number of parliamentarians to be included in the so-called “Government contract” signed with Salvini’s Northern League. In that document the cut was justified by the need to simplify the Chambers’ work, the legislative process in particular, and to reduce public spending.
The identification of the Five Star Movement with this proposal is so strong that, after the alliance with the Northern League broke and Government Conte II was formed, the Five Star Movement demanded that the Partito Democratico approve the reform in itinere at the time, a reform that the party had so far opposed. The issue of reducing the number of deputies and senators became a key point of the new political alliance and was mentioned in the statement by which Conte asked the Chambers for a vote of confidence.
The second root is methodological. The history of public debate on institutional reforms in Italy is long and troubled. After a people’s vote rejected two organic reforms of the Constitution – in 2006 and 2016 – it looks like the road to reforms can only be tread by small steps, through a precise and limited approach to amending the Constitution. The amendment we are discussing here would be a perfect example of this step-by-step approach.
However the reasons why I have chosen to vote “no” are linked to these two roots and concern both the content of the reform and its method.
As to the content I must specify that I am not in principle against a reduction in the number of parliamentarians, a trend actually often discussed when approaching constitutional reforms in Italy, starting with the reforms of 2006 and 2016. Nevertheless, the peculiarity and weakness of the Italian Parliament is the perfect nature of its bicameralism. The two Chambers have the same functions, especially as far as the relation with the Government is concerned, as both can provide and withdraw confidence, and in the legislative process, in which they play the same role. Differences are minimal even from the point of view of their composition. Although both Chambers are elected, citizens acquire the right to vote for the Senate when they turn 25 (while the right to vote for Chamber of Deputies is acquired at 18) and the right to be elected to the Senate at 40 (25 to be elected to the Chamber of Deputies). The Senate also includes senators for life, by right or for merit. It must also be highlighted that senators are elected on a regional basis, but this has never actually managed to turn the upper House into an Assembly that truly represents local issues.
Since this almost perfect symmetry between the Chambers is the Achilles’ heel of our Parliament, most proposals to amend the Constitution have suggested so far a different set-up of the bicameral system, in which the reduction in the number of parliamentarians is either the result of a different way of selecting members of the two Chambers and / or of different functions of the two Assemblies.
Conversely, in this reform the reduction of parliamentarians is carried out without changing the selecting criteria or the functions of the Chambers. So what is its purpose? What are the benefits of the reduction? The savings on public spending are negligible if compared to the size of the state budget or the financial efforts put in place to deal with the health emergency. Some of those in favor of voting “yes” argue that the decrease in the number of deputies and senators determines in itself a simplification of parliamentary activities. However, there are no objective elements to support this conclusion, considering that no political agreement as been reached to date on a reform of the electoral law and of parliamentary Standing Orders. On the other hand, the risk is that of reproducing the problems of the current Parliament in the future smaller Parliament.
As to the method, supporters of the reform maintain that this amendment would reopen the process of constitutional reform, otherwise stuck on the failures of past years. History has taught us that any organic reform of the Constitution makes parliamentary consensus more complex, paving the way to constitutional referenda, which end up asking citizens questions that are too diverse and articulate to be easily passed. On the other hand, even a step-by-step strategy must be supported by a reforming vision, since it entails a reform of the Charter that founds, disciplines and organizes the coexistence of our society, while this reform seems to be completely lacking a plan for the future.
A final consideration concerns the political root of the reform. Every legislative provision, once in force, has a life of its own, irrespective of the reasons that brought to its approval. It is however equally true that one cannot avoid to consider the cultural backdrop of a constitutional amendment: this is an openly anti-parliamentary background at a time of rising populism, feeding an antagonism between the elite and the people, and therefore demanding a strong opposition rather than an endorsement.
Suggested Citation: Francesca Rosa, Symposium | Part II | Reducing the Size of the Italian Parliament: Why I will be voting No, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Sept. 17, 2020, at: http://www.iconnectblog.com/2020/09/symposium-|-part-ii-|-reducing-the-size-of-the-italian-parliament:-why-i-will-be-voting-no
 The Government Conte II has the support of four parties: Five Star Movement, Partito Democratico, Italia Viva and Liberi ed Eguali.