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Symposium | Part III | Reducing the Size of the Italian Parliament: The Wrong Means to the Right End


[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 fourth entry of the symposium, which was kindly organized by Antonia Baraggia. Her introduction is available here.]


Francesco Palermo, Professor of Comparative Public Law, University of Verona and Head of the Institute for Comparative Federalism, Eurac Research, Bolzano/Bozen.

There are good reasons both in support and against the constitutional reform which curtails more than one-third of the members of the Italian bicameral parliament. The more convincing arguments bolstering the approval of the reform are in essence two. First, the constitutional amendment is limited in scope, and draws lessons from the previous, comprehensive reforms of the parliamentary system voted by parliament in 2006 and 2016 respectively, but both rejected by popular vote. These proposals have been considered too ambitious, while the current one is constitutionally humble yet symbolically significant, and might reduce the perceived gap between society and political representation, as this is what most people allegedly want. Second, supporters of the reform maintain that it might set in motion further and deeper constitutional changes.

Against the reform it is argued that it does not address any of the structural problems of the Italian system of government, including a bicameral parliament whose two chambers have almost identical functions. The effect of the constitutional amendment would just be to limit the representativeness of the parliament, reducing the chances for non-mainstream political parties and for weaker groups, including women and minorities, to be elected, while no tangible advantage will be introduced. To the contrary, the constitutional amendment could be dangerous as its political consequence would be deepening the growing political disaffection in society, by conveying the message that MPs and the very parliament are useless.

From a constitutional point of view, such a reform is no doubt disappointing. A revision of the parliamentary system has been on the constitutional agenda in Italy since the early 1980s, but could never materialise so far. It would be a sign of constitutional immaturity of the country as a whole if the only change that eventually reaches consensus is a trivial, punitive, disconnected curtail of the number of MPs. Not even other minor issues are addressed by the reform, which is only inspired by the obsession with numbers: for example, life senators – a constitutional legacy from monarchic times – remain, but there cannot be more than five life senators, putting an end to the conventional rule according to which each State President can appoint five. The same goes for the controversial MPs elected abroad: they are just proportionally reduced in number (from 12 to 8 in the Chamber of Deputies, from 6 to 4 in the Senate). And the age requirements to stand and to vote for both chambers remain different, although a separate constitutional amendment bill is pending in parliament – will it also be eventually submitted to referendum?

The systemic consequences of the cut could however be more significant than expected. This affects in particular the redistricting of the electoral colleges, the adoption of a new national electoral law and (perhaps more importantly) substantial changes in the rules of procedure in both chambers. Not a big deal, should there be a plan as to how and when to do such changes. Unfortunately, and alarmingly, there is not such plan. All that exists is a political paper by the current parliamentary majority, which mentions further reforms without a clear timeline. Nor can it be expected that the current parliament will produce decent reforms, considering how hypocritical the whole process was that lead to the approval of this one. As the constitution prescribes that a referendum on constitutional amendments can take place only if the bill is voted in the second reading by the absolute but not by the two-thirds majority in both chambers, the Senate deliberately failed to reach the two-third majority, allowing to call for a referendum and at the same time permitting the Chamber of Deputies to take a quasi-unanimous vote (553 yes, 14 no) in the fourth and last reading, thus giving the impression that Parliament is connected with the will of the people. Most MPs voted for the amendment without supporting it and hoping that the voters will reject it. This grotesque and Machiavellian strategy and the instrumentalization of the constitution for immediate political reasons (boost the majority and avoid early elections) can be both a reason for unmasking and torpedoing such strategy, by voting no, and the evidence that Parliament does not deserve trust, by voting yes. In any case, mistrust and disaffection will be bolstered.

The problem is not the issue per se. With a few adjustments, the Parliament could work also with fewer members, maybe even better. Most western democracies have proportionally smaller parliaments after all. The vote is ultimately a prognostic gamble between status quo and hope that something different means something better. So no, the problem is not the issue, it is the instrument. When parliamentary support for a constitutional amendment is so strong as the final vote in the lower Chamber tells, the constitution prevents a referendum. Politics was so spineless to call for it for trivial daily political reasons, for the (apparent) stability of the political majority, circumventing the spirit of the constitution. The public debate on the proposed reform – which is the real advantage of holding a referendum – was miserable in terms of arguments, basically revolving around populism (“saving money”) and conservatism (“other reforms are more urgent”). The daunting alternative is between beginning a journey without a destination and preventing further reforms, as it is unlikely that political forces will again burn their fingers with constitutional amendments when they are regularly voted down in referenda. No matter the outcome, after the referendum, politics will be (even) weaker, and society will be (ever more) split. And political weakness and split society are precisely what makes a political system less effective, way more than the size of Parliament. 

Indeed, there are good reasons in favour and against the proposed constitutional amendment. But the bug lies in the procedure. It is easy to turn an aquarium into a fish soup, the other way around is far more difficult.

Suggested Citation: Francesco Palermo, Symposium | Part III |Reducing the Size of the Italian Parliament: The Wrong Means to the Right End, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Sept. 18, 2020, at: http://www.iconnectblog.com/2020/09/symposium-|-part-iii-|-the-wrong-means-to-the-right-end

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Published on September 18, 2020
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