Renzi looks to revive ossified system

Prime minister hamstrung by motley opposition

With only days left for voters to settle their minds, Italy’s 4 December referendum on constitutional reform is mired in confusion. The polls have consistently veered towards a No decision, but the uncommitted camp is quite large – it is not clear if, and to what extent, those unwilling to declare because of strong political and intellectual pressure for No will ultimately heed Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s message and opt for Yes.

The political line-up is equally confusing and cuts across traditional party allegiances. The Yes camp can count on the majority of Renzi’s Democratic Party (PD) and his centrist allies, as well as the closet support of a cross section of moderate voters, including some from Silvio Berlusconi’s Forward Italy party.

The No camp is a motley collection, including a sizeable minority of the PD, a number of smaller leftist formations, former comedian Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement (M5S), and the separatist Northern League (LN) in alliance with the extreme-right party Brothers of Italy (FdI), and FI. That said, Berlusconi has occasionally let out signals that he could live with a Yes vote, which could strengthen his negotiating position.

The proposed changes to the constitution seem to be a hastily devised mix of platitudes which are likely to deliver less than promised; be it on streamlining the government machinery, saving public money and cutting red tape, or promoting a better separation of powers and avoiding duplication. An indirectly elected Senate, the matter at the heart of Renzi’s proposals, would be diminished in power but would retain the ability to obstruct legislation, have larger than advisable responsibilities on European policy, and would be made up of local administrators of uncertain ability. Nevertheless, the changes would give a jolt to a system which has been ossifying for decades.

The situation is further complicated by the de facto link between the constitutional referendum and a proposed bill to amend the electoral law, tabled by the government in parliament. With the aim of putting an end to the Italian tradition of unstable governments, the new law would guarantee the winning party a cast-iron majority for the life of the legislature, making it possible to exercise control over the selection of Constitutional Court judges and the election of the president of the republic.

The amended constitution would increase the powers of the executive considerably, leaving only one directly-elected house, the Chamber of Deputies, with full powers. The two issues are formally separate and only the constitution will be put to the referendum, but the political links are obvious and have led many to cry foul at what is perceived as an attempt by Renzi to turn a parliamentary government into a presidential one, throttling the opposition. There are further doubts about an electoral law which was designed to provide stability in a bipolar political system; the crisis in the traditional centre-left and centre-right parties and the emergence of M5S would turn the next election into a three-way race, adding to instability.

There is merit in the concerns, but arguments have been grossly exaggerated on both sides. Italy will not turn into a dictatorship if the Yes vote succeeds, as its opponents claim. Neither will the chance of modernising the Italian state be forfeited if No prevails. Sensing the danger, Renzi has promised to amend the electoral bill to include some of the opposition’s points but – adding that he would do so only after the result of the referendum – he has probably done ‘too little, too late’ to pacify the No camp.

Antonio Armellini was Italian Ambassador to India and Nepal from 2004-8. He is a Member of the OMFIF Advisory Board, International Institute for Strategic Studies and Istituto Affari Internazionali.


Renzi bets career with risky gamble

Berlusconi looks to capitalise from sidelines

By Antonio Armellini

Italy’s 4 December referendum is not so much concerned with the proposed constitutional reform as with Matteo Renzi and the credibility of his stated aim of a better, more efficient and more accountable government. The correlation may not necessarily be to his disadvantage. Concerns about the authoritarian character of a changed constitution could be offset by the fear of losing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to update the fabric of the Italian state.

Renzi will continue to make this the main plank of his strategy in the closing days of the campaign, stressing that the changes he advocates are the only way to retain the country’s international credibility. He has lobbied friends and allies, from Barack Obama to Angela Merkel, to put this message across as forcefully as possible, and has leant heavily on the distress signals coming from financial markets.

The psychological rebound of Donald Trump’s election victory and of Brexit could go both ways, and external constraints don’t always work in Italy as expected. For example, while the issues of the banks and an Italian risk for the euro resonate in international media, they should be taken with a pinch of salt in the Italian context. Growing fatigue with the Renzi government in the face of continuing economic stagnation is a potent factor which favours the No campaign. Equally, his repeated message that the alternative to a Yes vote is paralysis coupled with increased isolation from Europe, could prove effective. Making forecasts at this stage may sound disingenuous but one can venture that, all things being equal, the chance of a Yes vote scraping through by a thin margin should not be underrated.

In the event of failure, Renzi has repeatedly maintained that he would not stay on just to lick his wounds and float aimlessly. At the same time, he has let it be known that he would not necessarily resign if the conditions warranted a substantive step forward. That said, the situation is largely out of his hands, since it is President Sergio Mattarella who has ultimate authority in deciding the course of events. He could reappoint Renzi, or could ordain a so-called ‘institutional government’ to adopt the budget, untangle the reforms and carry on until the next general election.

Renzi could be tempted with the idea of trying to force an early election (which would allow him to wipe out the opposition within his own party), though he would have to confront the likely opposition of President Mattarella. This would enter Renzi into a very risky gamble, since the chances of turning the country over to Beppe Grillo, leader of the populist Five Star Movement, would be very high.

It would be premature to rule out a second Renzi cabinet after a defeat, except in the case of a rout (which doesn’t look likely). Silvio Berlusconi, former head of state and current leader of the Forward Italy party, is following events from the sidelines, ready to give Renzi a helping hand in exchange for the renewed political and parliamentary recognition he has never stopped seeking.

Antonio Armellini was Italian Ambassador to India and Nepal from 2004-8. He is a Member of the OMFIF Advisory Board, International Institute for Strategic Studies and Istituto Affari Internazionali.

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