Italia Sì, Italia No: Explaining Tomorrow’s Referendum

On December 4th the Italian people will be called to the polling stations with a heavy lift on their shoulders: the Italian Constitution. But what exactly are we going to vote on? The campaigns have been intense and, therefore, we would like to dispel some myths surrounding the YES and NO camps.

Despite the desperate and harmful attempt to make this vote a test for the government – or rather of PM Matteo Renzi – by the very same Democratic Party and the oppositions, this referendum is about the much more lasting structure of the Italian institutions.



If the YES camp wins, we will not end up “in the darkest of dictatorships”, and Europe will not turn on us if the NO camp wins. This is not a Brexit-like vote, it does not concern Europe or Italy’s membership in the Eurozone. This is not strictly an establishment versus populists vote. Former Commissioner Mario Monti, for example, is himself a supporter of the NO camp, while former President of the European Commission Romano Prodi recently announced he will vote YES.

It is also untrue that if this referendum does not pass, we will not be able to have other reforms. In fact, this is the third reform in 15 years, and small corrections have been made along the way, although this one is arguably more impactful than the previous ones, and is the result of a clear call of Former-President Giorgio Napolitano when he reluctantly accepted to be re-elected President on 22 April 2013.


It is true that young people should turn out to vote in bigger numbers, simply because these changes will affect them in the long-run much more than they affect the older generations. The latest polls showcased a very narrow race, and due to the lack of the quorum, every single vote could potentially be decisive in the results.

Therefore, the important question now is: how is the Italian Constitution going to be affected?

The Italian Constitution is divided into three parts: Fundamental Principles, Part I (Rights and obligations of the citizens) and Part Two. This reform is mainly based on Part II on the Organization of the Republic, except for Title IV on the Judiciary. Hereafter are the major claims that have been made about the reform:


Article 57: The new Senate will decrease from 315 to 100 senators (74 councillors, elected by the Regional Councils; 21 mayors, elected by the Regional Councils to the extent of one per each region; and 5 senators, appointed by the President of the Republic with a non-renewable mandate of 7 years).

NO: The 95 senators with offices in their territorial institutions will not resign from their function as a regional councillor or mayor, but they will continue to carry it out part-time. It is an unusual choice opposed by many countries (e.g. France, loi n. 125/2014). Furthermore, the duration of the mandate of the Senators will coincide with that of their position as Regional Councilors and Mayors. Therefore, the Senate will form progressively and it will be subject to continuous variations due to the different end of office of the territorial institutions.

YES: The functions of the Senate decrease drastically, as stated by the amendment of Article 70. As a consequence, there is no longer need for 315 elected senators, which will cut down on the cost of politics. The new structure will bring locally elected officials closer to the decision making in Rome, ensuring a constant process of mutual feedback between the government and local politicians.

Article 70: Laws will be mainly approved by the Chamber of Deputies. However, there are laws that will remain “bicameral” such as the creation and implementation of EU law, Constitutional matters, Senate elections, Ratification of EU treaties, Implementation of Title V.

NO: We will not put an end to perfect bicameralism and instead of the current two-ways stream to approve laws in the Chamber and the Senate, this reforms opens the door to at least ten different procedures and a long series of loopholes due to the extreme unintelligibility of the text. It is also a false claim that perfect bicameralism is an impediment to the approval of new legislation. In the former legislation the majority of laws have been approved after two  readings and if we compare Italy to other EU countries, it is the second country, after Germany, with more legislation passed.

YES: Most of the laws will now only need to pass one House. This will simplify and fasten the political process, since now both Houses have to approve all laws, and if one of the Houses amends a law it then has to go back to the other House, potentially leading to an endless back-and-forth process. Furthermore, the Senate will not be charged anymore with a vote of confidence for the government. Because the Senate is elected with a different electoral law than the Chamber, for instance not allowing the vote of those under the age of 25, a majority of seats in the Chamber does not necessarily translate to a majority in the Senate. This often led to wide and incongruous coalitions where small parties or single MPs would be able to make a government fall, as was the case with the Prodi Government in 2008. Italy doesn’t need two Houses with very similar functions; by changing the functions of the Senate it follows the example of most other European countries.

The reform will drastically cut the costs of the political sphere.

NO:  The costs for the Senate amount to 540 million euros. In 2015 this institution has weighed on the overall national budget for the 0.064%. While senators allowance would go down, that covers around 42 million euros, therefore less than 10% of the total. With the reform, many costs would remain unchanged including travel expenses, stay in Rome, pensions of former senators and former employees (around 233 million euros), real estate, services and the staff. As such it constitutionalizes the figure of the civil servant, with the risk of permanently evading savings manoeuvers affecting all other public employees.

YES: Each Italian MP costs the community around 16.000 euros. This is 60% more than the average European MP. They are also among those with the highest lifelong benefits. On the long run, this means many more costs are saved than the costs that are saved immediately. In any case, in a country like Italy where the costs of the political sphere are one of the most heated topics for debate, already a first move towards reducing the costs of politics is to be considered positively.

The reform will give more power to the citizens.

NO: The number of signatures required for the submission of a popular referendum is tripled (from 50.000 to 150.000 thousand). This significant limitation to this form of direct exercise of sovereignty cannot be justified by the excessive use of the popular referendum (only 1.15% of the submissions were approved by Parliament).

YES: The problem with referendums in Italy is usually not that they cannot be held, but that they don’t reach the 50%+1 quorum of voters. The reform decreases the quorum to half of the voters at the last elections for those referendums that were supported by a minimum of 800 thousand signatures. Also, by leaving only one Chamber tasked to giving confidence to the Government, politicians will not be able any longer to blame their failure on the diktats of smaller parties: who wins elections governs under easier conditions than now. Citizens will be able to decide at the next election if they have done this good or bad.



This is not an easy choice. In fact, like many other progressive voters, we are torn, and one of us ended up supporting the YES camp, and the other one the NO camp. This referendum ends up being quite technical, with legal experts themselves dividing their support equally among the two camps, and political ideology to be a limited determinant of the vote. Many voters will take the referendum as a vote in favor or against Renzi. That will, in fact, be the strongest political message coming out of December 4th.


Robert Zielonka is the President of the Graduates of Democracy. @ZielonkaRobert

Cecilia Passaniti is the VicePresident for External Coordination of the Graduates of Democracy and student of The Hague University. @CeciPassaniti

Images: Business Insider and Fabio Frustaci


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