[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 second entry of the symposium, which was kindly organized by Antonia Baraggia. Her introduction is available here.]
Carlo Fusaro, Professor of Comparative Public Law, University of Florence.
After voters turned down two comprehensive attempts to revise part II of the Italian Constitution, in 2006 (the project had been passed by the center-right coalition led by Mr. Berlusconi) as well as in 2016 (the project had been passed by the center-left coalition led by Mr. Renzi), the political parties of the Italian Parliament have unanimously approved a very simple and limited amendment which reduces the members of the Chamber of deputies from 630 to 400 and the elected members of the Senate from 315 to 200.
This is a model implementation of the theory, which I do not support but it is shared by most scholars, according to which it is better to revise the Constitution by piecemeal changes, or “surgical” amendments: this approach being regarded more respectful of the right of the voters to cherry-pick their favorite changes rather than be forced to say yes or no to more comprehensive projects with one single vote.
The significant streamlining of the Italian Parliament membership has been the flagship proposal of the winners of the 2018 elections, the Five Stars Movement (FSM) which counts on about 1/3 of the members of each chamber and have been the main support of the Conte I (FSM and Lega) cabinet and are the main support of the Conte II (FSM and Democratic Party). It was introduced two years ago along with two additional projects: one introducing a pervasive form of popular initiative, the other meant to limit the traditional principle of the free parliamentary mandate which the Italian Constitution provides for, an inheritance of the time when political parties did not exist and the theory was that each single MP represented the Nation as a whole.
The FSM is an internet born movement which purports a new blend of democracy in which the role of the representative institutions is balanced if not overcome by instruments of direct possibly digital democracy.
When the Conte II cabinet was formed the two new partners had to change their constitutional strategies which had been rather different. In a nutshell, the Democratic party which had opposed the 36.5% cut in Parliamentary membership as such, had to agree to vote in favor, but asked to integrate it with a small set of additional punctual amendments and a new more proportional electoral law; the FSM accepted to support these proposals and it implicitly set aside its other two more controversial flagship projects.
As a consequence, the cut was passed by no less than 553 members of the Chamber out of 630, only 14 voting no, and 2 abstaining (the others were not present): the reduction has been supported by 97% of those voting and over 88% of the whole body. However, the previous vote in the Senate (when the PD was still in opposition) had not been so large and it did not fulfill the condition established by art. 138 It. Const. according to which a law amending the Constitution may be submitted to a referendum in case it is not passed by a two-thirds majority.
For the first time, a constitutional amendment will be submitted to a referendum in spite of the unanimous vote by all parties in Parliament, under the request of a number of senators of all groups individually acting in dissent from their parties.
All this said these facts should be considered: a) the Italian Parliament is the world most numerous aside from the Assembly of the People of China (which can hardly be considered a “true” Parliament) and from the UK Parliament if one includes the Lords; b) it is by far the one with the highest number of members per million inhabitants, if one considers countries of a similar size (aside from the UK again); c) it is the only one featuring two directly elected chambers sharing the same identical powers; d) all the projects meant to reform part II of the Italian Constitution, introduced by all parties in the last 40 years, have included a significant reduction of the membership of one or both Chambers; e) the same can be said about all other projects or reports submitted by academics; f) the approach to constitutional changes having been based on comprehensive projects until a few years ago, in most if not all cases the streamlining of the two Chambers unto now has come in a single package including a differentiation of their functions.
On the contrary, the amendment unanimously passed by Parliament doesn’t touch any other part of the Constitution and it is of a very limited character. It doesn’t affect either political or territorial representation in a significant way: in particular, the cut does not affect the large scale of the Italian Parliament which will remain the world 14th largest (with 10 of those larger Parliaments belonging to countries with a much bigger population than Italy).
For what the Senate is concerned, the sole political effect will be that small parties, although still represented, will not draw their MPs from the smallest Regions (which elect 44 senators all together) but from the major ones only (which elect 152 of them). Obviously the reduction will mean that some areas which now elect an MP tomorrow might not. In part this will depend on the electoral law: single member constituencies could take care of this issue. However, the members of the Italian Parliament represent the nation and not their voters solely: while no less than 884 regional legislators have been added since the membership of the two chambers has been fixed in 1963.
The reduction could (and should) allow a longly due revision of the Standing Orders of the two Chambers; it will impose a more strict selection of candidates (potentially enhancing their quality and their authority which will depend on both parties and voters of course); it should allow a more efficient functioning of the two streamlined assemblies; it will force to repair a major flaw of the present Italian Constitution: the provision according to which citizens between 18 and 25 do not vote for a Senate which has the same powers of the Chamber, something intolerable in a democracy.
But the most important aim of the reduction is to signal that Parliament has understood that its citizenry expects more nimble, more responsive and more sober institutions, as well as a less pervasive political class: a pre-condition for any hope to improve the strained relationship between parties and citizens.
To the opposite, the 2020 referendum will be recorded as the first ever held not because requested by a political minority to react to a non-consensual constitutional change, but by single MPs against a consensual vote of the entire Parliament: the first truly populist referendum whose promoters paradoxically pretend to save Parliament from itself, and try to do so recurring to an instrument prone to stir demagoguery and populism.
Suggested Citation: Carlo Fusaro, Symposium | Part I | Reducing the Size of the Italian Parliament: A Limited Constitutional Reform with No Risks and Some Benefits, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Sept. 16, 2020, at: http://www.iconnectblog.com/2020/09/symposium-reducing-the-size-of-the-italian-parliament-a-limited-constitutional-reform-with-no-risks-and-some-benefits