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Analysis
Renzi looks to revive ossified system

Renzi looks to revive ossified system

Prime minister hamstrung by motley opposition

by Antonio Armellini

Mon 28 Nov 2016

Italy’s 4 December referendum on constitutional reform is coming down to the wire. 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), the separatist Northern League (LN) in alliance with the extreme-right party Brothers of Italy (FdI), and Berlusconi's FI. That said, Berlusconi has occasionally signaled that he could live with a Yes vote, which could strengthen his negotiating position.

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.

The strong anti-Europe rhetoric of Grillo and Matteo Salvini, leader of LN, is essentially electoral gameplay. Were the issue ever come to a crunch, the underlying pro-European streak in the Italian social fabric would come to the fore. Berlusconi’s euroscepticism is also tactical.

Fatigue with the Renzi government in the face of continuing economic stagnation is a potent factor which favours the No campaign. Equally, Renzi's repeated message that the alternative to a Yes vote is paralysis coupled with increased isolation from Europe could prove effective. We should not understate the chances of a Yes vote scraping through by a thin margin.

The proposed changes to the constitution would give a jolt to an ossified system, but seem to be a hastily devised mix which is 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 unelected 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.

A further complication is the de facto link between the constitutional referendum and a bill on a new electoral law, proposed by the government with the stated aim of ending the tradition of unstable Italian governments. The new law would assure the winning party a cast-iron majority for the life of the legislature, making it possible to exercise control, too, over the selection of Constitutional Court judges and the election of the president of the republic.

The amended constitution would considerably increase the powers of the executive, 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 the attempt to throttle the opposition and turn a parliamentary government into a presidential one. Confronted by an increasingly vicious campaign, Renzi has tried to defuse the issue and has promised to amend the electoral bill. But in adding that he would postpone the discussion until after the result of the referendum, he has probably done ‘too little, too late’ to pacify No voters.

Italy will neither enter a dictatorship if Yes wins, as opponents claim, nor give up all chance of modernisation if No prevails. In personalising the issue, Renzi has hoisted himself with his own petard and is struggling to separate, in the minds of the electorate, the issue of constitutional reform from that of political gerrymandering. The vote will be not so much on the merit of the changes, as on Renzi’s ability to deliver on his multiple promises of a better, more efficient and accountable government. Concerns about the authoritarian character of the correlation between the new electoral law and the constitutional reform 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 remaining days of the campaign, stressing that the changes are the only way to retain the country’s international credibility.

In the event of failure, Renzi has repeatedly maintained that he would not stay on just to lick his wounds. At the same time, he has let it be known that he would not necessarily resign if the conditions warranted a substantive step forward. However President Sergio Mattarella has ultimate authority in deciding the outcome. 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 probably have to confront the opposition of President Mattarella.

This would be a gamble for Renzi, with a high risk of turning over the country to Grillo and the M5S. Five years after stepping down from office, Berlusconi is following developments from the sidelines, ready to give a helping hand to Renzi – 'a prime minister that I understand', as he has called him – in exchange for the renewed political and parliamentary recognition he craves. Berlusconi’s re-entry on to the Italian stage seems unlikely to herald greater stability in Rome.

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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