Italy's Referendum Guide: Everything You Need to Know About Renzi's Gamble

We explain what the reform is about and why the critics hate it
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Why the Italian Referendum Really Matters

On Dec. 4, it’s do or die for Matteo Renzi as Italy holds a constitutional referendum that has become a de facto vote on whether the prime minister should keep his job.

While its political significance is well flagged -- a “No” vote could lead to a government crisis -- what is less known is what the reform is actually all about. That’s where we come in with a guide to all you need to know about a convoluted piece of legislation whose contents have been overlooked.

1. What is it about in a nutshell?

Voters will be asked whether they want to amend the Italian Constitution. That is no easy feat as the 1948 legal framework was written precisely with the idea of a dominant legislature to safeguard against fascism. The text of the reform took years to jump through all the hoops in both houses and must now, in a final test, be put to the people. The basic pitch is that there are too many overpaid senators that need to be got rid of to enable laws to be passed quickly and efficiently.

See the chart below to see how Italy compares to its European peers:

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2. Let’s get down to the nitty gritty...

For starters, it would end Italy’s postwar parliamentary democracy otherwise known as “perfect bicameralism.” Right now the upper and lower house have equal status and powers and each law is bounced back and forth until it’s approved by both in identical form.

So the Senate would be stripped of most of its powers and will no longer be able to bring down governments with a vote of no confidence.

Photographer: Filippo Monteforte/AFP via Getty Images
CasaPound Italia posters calling for a 'No' vote, in Rome.
Photographer: Filippo Monteforte/AFP via Getty Images

Instead of 315 senators, there will 100 local government figures. Specifically 21 mayors, 74 regional councillors and five senators appointed by the head of state for a seven-year term. The senators won’t receive a salary but will be granted parliamentary immunity from some criminal proceedings including arrest.

In short, the Chamber of Deputies will become the main legislative body while full bicameralism will remain for subjects including European policies, constitutional and election laws.

See below for how slow and painful it is to pass laws in Italy compared to the of Europe.

3. Is that it? No, there’s more...

In Italy there is the figure of the president, a largely ceremonial role but one that becomes important in times of political crisis when as often is the case the head of state appoints a caretaker prime minister to see the country through a rough patch. Under the reform, a higher majority will be needed from the fourth round of voting to elect a president.

There is more that is crammed into the reform, including a redistribution of powers between State and regions: areas such as infrastructure, transport control and energy are centralized. The government can also deploy a ’supremacy clause’ to legislate on regional matters citing national and economic interests and can ask for an important bill to be voted on within 70 days.

4. So what do the critics say?

The reform would remove a system of checks and balances and hand too much power to the executive branch, also considering that the current election law gives 55% of seats in the lower house to the most voted party. The split of duties in parliament is confusing and the legislation process won’t be simplified because the upper house will still be able to propose changes to laws passed by the Chamber of Deputies. It wouldn’t save that much money -- certainly not half a billion euros ($530 billion) a year, like Renzi claims.

5. Tell me all the possible outcomes, please.

Voila.

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