On Sunday and Monday, Italians will vote once again, the third time in a month. This time it is the whole population, just over 50 million; they have to decide on four referendums, nuclear power, water (two) and the so called “legitimate impediment”. In practice, once again and despite strenuous denials from all sides, the real issue is Berlusconi and his government.
The Swiss use referendums every other week for everything from a village pedestrian crossing to minarets in the whole country; the British use them when the government wants to avoid committing itself; De Gaulle used them as confirmation that he had popular support (only he called them plébiscites); some American states increasingly use them as a way for moneyed lobbies to avoid lengthy legislative processes.
In Italy, they are a constitutional instrument which in theory only allows the repeal of laws. In order to have a referendum, half a million citizens (about 1% of the electorate) have to petition. Referendums can only repeal existing laws (not propose them as in Switzerland or California) and they cannot be used to repeal budget laws, amnesties or international treaties. The biggest restriction is that to be valid, more than 50% of the electorate must vote.
For 26 years no one challenged Parliament with a referendum. Then in 1974, the Church and part of the Christian Democrat party thought they could overturn the new divorce law. It backfired badly with divorce being confirmed 60:40. The Radical Party used the referendum as an agenda-setting mechanism forcing Parliament to deal with an issue rather than face a referendum. Abortion was legalised in 1978 before the existing prohibition could be voted on.
In contrast, most of the following referendums confirmed the laws but in the early ‘90s the Clean Hands corruption trials were accompanied by a spate of referendums where Italians protested against the government. Three abolished ministries, one stopped the public financing of political parties, another political appointments in banks. They all produced a turnout in the mid/high 70s and all were passed with a majority of 80 or 90% (with the exception of the one which removed penalties for the use of soft drugs which meant that voters actually looked at what they were voting for and not just vote all “yes”). The most significant ones changed the electoral system and thus the whole political system. Taken together, they were a strong expression of disgust in politics as it was played in the so-called “First Republic”. Along with the trials, they helped to remove the Socialist leader Bettino Craxi and many leading Christian Democrats.
We seem to be at an equally crucial moment today.
None of the four addresses a fundamental issue though the one on whether to restart a nuclear energy programme is controversial enough. But as in 1993 they are even more important than last month’s local elections where centre-right candidates lost in Milan and Naples causing major tension in the government coalition.
The four laws up for repeal were all passed by the present government in the last couple of years so if the referendums pass, it will be a major blow for Berlusconi. The mechanism itself, though, inherently supports the conservative (with a small ‘c’) point of view – for change, more than half the electorate have to turn out. Normally about 20-30% of Italians do not vote. Some have died since the list was last revised, some are infirm, some are abroad on business or holiday and many are not interested. Another 10-20% either don’t know what the issues are or can’t be bothered to find out; so if only 20% of the electorate strongly support the law being voted, they can win by not turning up to vote. This is what has happened since 1995 – no referendum has succeeded in repealing an existing law.
So the biggest campaign for Sunday is to get the vote out – there is little doubt that the ‘yes’ vote will win on all four. Voters in practice have a three way choice: yes, no, abstain. In 1993 Bettino Craxi famously encouraged people to go to the seaside and ignore the referendums; they didn’t and a few months later, Craxi had fled the country, never to return.
Anti-government media are doing everything to increase turnout – most are in favour of a blanket four yes vote while government media either ignore the vote or when they are public service broadcasters, they downplay them. Yesterday, RAI 1’s main evening news even gave the wrong date.
As for the yes and no, there is some limited articulation. The non-government centre right (Fini’s FLI) and far right (Mussolini) and even some ministers (Micciché and Prestigiacomo) are in favour of keeping water public and against the “legitimate impediment” and nuclear programme as are Bossi and some others in the Northern League, notably the Venetia president Luca Zaia. The PD mayor of Florence and the ex-mayor of Turin have both said they are in favour of privatising water.
A year ago the government passed a law which would re-start Italy nuclear energy programme which was stopped in 1987 by another referendum. After the Fukushima disaster, a clause was introduced in a recent law which puts off the re-start for a year – that way, the government hoped to be able to avoid the referendum but the Court of Cassation allowed it to go ahead as planned. The government has now appealed to the Constitutional Court in a last ditch attempt to stop the referendum. The verdict is due tomorrow or Wednesday although the new President of the Court elected today has said that he doesn’t think there are grounds to stop the referendum. Everyone has strong opinions on the subject – on Saturday I heard a group of young people walking back from the beach heatedly debating energy security and the dangers of fossil fuel versus nuclear. The government’s attempt to stifle the referendum through silence and the courts has backfired with even centre-right voters fed up with the perceived sneakiness and worse, a way of limited the democratic process.
The “legitimate impediment” allowed the prime minister and members of cabinet to decide if they were too busy on government business to attend court hearings. In January, the Constitutional Court said that it would be the single court, not the defendant who would decide so the law’s effect has been reduced. But it is still a symbol of Berlusconi’s attempts to avoid prosecution.
Of the two water referendums, one law allows the privatisation of the public utility while the other guarantees a 7% on anyone who invests in water.
The referendum in Italy is still a powerful weapon.