Thursday, April 08, 2004

Constitutional reform – how serious?
Nadia Desai

The Northern League was up to its old antics again last week in the Chamber of Deputies. They bellowed their usual phrase “Roma ladrona”, this time in protest to cartolarizzazione, which is the sale of properties that are owned by public agencies of different sorts ie. properties owned by pension funds, to private holders. This sale of public property is by no means an initiative of the current government; it was a process that began in the 1980s, not only in Italy, but also across Europe. The move was meant to reduce the public sector thus introducing competition, which would lead to efficiency. Furthermore, selling-off state property was also meant to serve for the reduction of the public debt.
What the League was criticising was that this process of privatisation is corrupted, and that state owned enterprises end up in the hands of close associates, who operate in the private sector, for less than the accepted value.
But what can the League actually achieve with this un-parliamentary behaviour, besides the suspension of its two vocal members from parliament and impatient groans from their coalition colleagues as well as members of the public? There is little reason to adopt such offensive language, considering that the Federal Reform Bill was passed in the Italian Senate on 25th March. Granted, the bill, being a constitutional amendment, will have to be passed twice by both houses of parliament and may not make it that far as it has already received extensive criticism and opposition from the left coalition. But, few thought the League would get this far with its federal reform programme, especially as it is apart of the same coalition as the National Alliance, which, nostalgic for the days of fascism, advocates a strong, centralist state.
In 2001, a similar reform was intended as what can be considered the last major legislative act of the centre-left coalition. The federal reforms in that constitutional amendment gave the regions concurrent legislative powers with the state in the areas of health, education and public safety. Problems arose, however, with the concept of parallel legislative powers, which resulted in a series of disputes between the institutions that sought recourse in the Constitutional Court. Thus, the reform package became virtually paralysed by these conflicts.
Umberto Bossi therefore recognised the need for a new reform proposal. However, while the 2001 reforms did have the support of social groups ie. Trade unions, the new reforms do not. This is due to the fact that the new proposals advocate for the regions to have exclusive legal competence in the aforementioned areas, as opposed to concurrent ones. Trade unions have widely opposed this reform, as they believe the new legislative structure does not guarantee the rights and working conditions of all Italian citizens and that certain infringements of people’s protections will develop between the various regions. Such dangers may, of course, be more present in the underdeveloped southern region of Italy, which has been described as parasitic on the north – a view especially held among leghisti.
Another section of the reform package that is widely criticised by the opposition is that of restructuring the Senate to a house of regional representatives. This has understandably caused much confusion and concern as it may leave regions the freedom to conduct policies according to their own interests, not taking into account national interests. Thus, regions could pursue certain development policies for their own benefit that could very well harm other regions. According to the opposition, such a reform could fracture national unity and set Italians against each other.
But the most contentious area of the reforms is, perhaps, the proposal to concentrate more power in the hands of the prime minister. At present, the prime minister is an expression of the majority coalition in parliament and is nominated by the President of the Republic. If the reforms are passed, the prime minister will be directly elected, and will be able to hire and fire ministers as he pleases. Moreover, the prime minister will be able to dissolve parliament – a power that has always resided with the president. Understandably, with the present situation in Italian politics, much criticism has risen from the centre-left opposition, who accuse Prime Minister Berlusconi for trying to concentrate power in his own hands. However, it is argued by the supporters of the bill that directly electing the prime minister will bring Italians closer to the political system, and that the additional prime ministerial powers will speed up the sluggish legislative process, it is difficult to not show pessimism towards the seeming well-intentioned Berlusconi. Intentions of the sort from a man with such an extensive monopoly over public and private life in Italy, coupled with his obscure dealings with the law, must be met with scepticism. If this type of reform is passed then Italy will be in even more danger from Berlusconi, who is already accused of passing legislation that serves his private interests and will be subjected to even fewer checks and balances in order to get his way. This is one of the possible consequences of the reform package if it is accepted in its present state. But, if it is not passed as it is, will the Northern League pull out of the coalition government as it has threatened to do? If so, the government will fall and if parliament is not able to express a majority, then Italians will have to return to the polls, in which case a new coalition will take power (perhaps even centre-left if Prodi returns as promised). Will that mean that the League will retreat to its separatist rhetoric of the early 1990’s, advocating for the independence of “Padania”? Or will Bossi compromise the goals of a federalist Italy in order to remain in government? Perhaps all this hypothesising is excessive, but it certainly shows that many questions and possibilities rest on the outcome of the reform package.