THE PROBLEM IS LONDON, NOT ROME: ITALY & THE CONSTITUTIONAL REFERENDUM

Until a few years ago, the most recurrent question I would always get abroad was: will Italy survive Silvio Berlusconi? Now that for obvious reasons, I do not get that anymore, the question has become: Will Italy survive if the referendum on the Constitutional reforms fails?

Relax, Armageddon is not going to come from Italy as British media seem to suggest. In fact, the world, Europe – and even Italy – would continue as always in the unlikely case that the constitutional referendum would not pass. Though polls suggest the NO is currently leading, it would be surprising that the reforms were not carried, given the government’s massive efforts and to a number of variables un-related to the actual content of the referendum.

First and foremost, this is a confirmative referendum, not an abrogative one. While abrogative referendums require a quorum of 50%+1, confirmative ones only need a simple majority of yes-votes to pass. Italians are however used to abrogative referendums and in having the option of non-voting as a sort of SuperNo, since the lack of quorum invalidates a referendum. It is safe to assume, however, that many of those who will choose not to vote, will not be aware that in this particular case, in doing so, they will de facto support the reform, rather than oppose it.

Second, the referendum question is really geared toward the yes: who would answer no to a question asking if you want to reduce the cost of politics and the number of politicians?

Third, elite media officials (and stars) overwhelmingly support the reform – though admittedly a similar constellation did not help Clinton win the Presidency in the US. There are rumors of a “suggestion” to public TVs to only invite older political leaders to support the no-side, as a means of enhancing the narrative that yes means change for the country.

Fourth, committees supporting the reform are more numerous and better organized than the ones opposing it, as Matteo Renzi can rely on the network he created to get the Democratic Party leadership and thus the Premiership.

In fact, the referendum is cutting across party lines and both sides are heterogeneous: the majority of the Democratic Party is in favor of the reform, while the opposition minority is against. Former Berlusconi’s foes now allied with Renzi are in favor of the reform. The Northern League is against, though some of its people - like the major of Verona - are in favor. Grillo’s Five Stars Movement is against the reform. So is Berlusconi’s party though… adagio.

Fifth, there has been an impressive effort by the government to reach out to voters abroad, too. In addition to the 4 million Italians permanently living abroad and normally entitled to vote, in fact, over 30,000 citizens temporarily outside of the country have been exceptionally allowed to use an absentee ballot – something that otherwise does not really exist in Italy. Especially in Latin America – where there are over 1,5 million potential voters – the diplomatic network has walked the extra mile to convince people to vote (in favor). Italians abroad received a brochure celebrating Prime Minister Renzi, his picture with Barack Obama centerpiece and encased by pictures with other world leaders, though foreign affairs have nothing to do with the reform.

Matteo has in fact cashed in as many favors as possible by asking colleagues to endorse the referendum. Notoriously, one to do so was President Obama during Renzi’s triumphal visit to Washington. To return the favor, Renzi publicly endorsed Hillary for President… Both domestically and abroad, Renzi has been pushing on the narrative that if the referendum fails, Italy will collapse and so will Europe, thus contributing in spreading unnecessary panic.

In doing so, he also contributed to making the referendum an emotional and political choice about himself, rather than an informed debate about the pros and cons of the would-be changes. Even though personalizing a referendum is always a bad choice – ask Charles De Gaulle, Jacques Chirac, or David Cameron – Renzi’s spin doctor, Jim Messina, thinks this is the card to play. (He also suggested taking away the EU flag from Renzi’s office and press conference room, only to promptly return it after an outcry on social media.)

In fact, there are both pros and cons in the constitutional change, which is the most invasive one since the text was adopted in 1948, changing as many as 49 articles. Just as an example, among the pros there is the elimination of obsolete agencies such as CNEL – the outdated Chamber of Labor. The major con is the change of the Senate. Italy has perfect bicameralism, meaning each bill must be approved in the identical form by both sides of Parliament. For a long time, this complicated the adoption of laws until new regulations and procedures enhanced the committees’ powers. Still, the idea of an ineffective parliament is hard to kill. The reform transforms the Senate from a regional-based chamber directly elected by the people into a second level one formed by local and regional politicians that meets once a month in Rome. The problem is twofold: first, evidence from the (European) Committee of the Regions and from the European Parliament suggests that the double mandate does not work: the Committee of Regions has no real influence in EU decision-making, while the European Parliament started to become effective only since MPEs had to choose where to sit. Secondly, as far as we know – a lot is left to be decided by subsequent regulations - EU affairs will be the prerogative of the Senate and there is no way that can be adequately done by a body meeting only a week a month.

Should the yes prevail, Renzi will be reinforced in power and will de facto be able to choose – with the support of the President of the Republic Sergio Mattarella – the best time to vote, in order to minimize the chances that Grillo and the Northern League get anywhere near government. After Trump, the powers-that-be in Italy are in fact even more determined than usual to prevent Grillo from seizing power.

Should the reform be rejected, Renzi will likely have to resign. Though much would depend on the eventual size of the loss, rumors are that Mattarella would either not accept the resignation, or would accept it and then give him a new mandate to form a new government. This new government would likely to be supported a larger coalition than the current one, also encompassing what is left of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia.

That would be the fourth government since 2011 to be formed without an electoral vote. Though it would not be a sign of healthy democracy, on the short term it would be the only alternative. Because the new electoral law was designed with the post-reform in mind, there are electoral provisions only for the lower Chamber. Technically, therefore, Italy would not have an electoral law. It is safe however to assume that at that point the Constitutional Court – which is currently withholding its decision until the referendum – would declare the new electoral law as unconstitutional, bringing back into validity the former law, and thus allowing the country to finally vote.

Whatever the result of the referendum, therefore, it will not be Italy that brings the world to an end on December 4th. With due respect to British media which still seem to have not understood how the real problems for Europe are coming from Albion, not from Rome.

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