Sunday, October 02, 2011

The Power of Referendums

Referendums are an arcane branch of politics; electoral systems even more so – combined they are normally as stimulating as a valium-camomile cocktail. But once again, Italy is different and yesterday’s news that the promoters of an election reform referendum managed to gather more than 1.2 million signatures is news indeed, and of much more interest than Berlusconi’s latest Montenegrin “fiancée”. If passed the referendum would abolish the very unpopular electoral law (nicknamed “porcellum”, a multiple pun I won’t try to translate, but the sense is close to “pigsty”or what is in one) in which parliamentarians are in practice nominated by party bosses
. There are immediate consequences which change the political agenda, the power relationships between the parties and the public perception of politicians and politics in general. And then there will be medium term consequences on how (and who) Italians elect to Parliament. Referendums are one of the few forms of direct democracy that we have in modern societies. Apart from the Swiss who have them on everything from putting in a new pedestrian crossing in a tiny village to weighty national matters of religious freedom, most of the rest of us use referendums sparingly as they can easily become a bludgeon in the hands of expert and well-funded populists. De Gaulle changed France with plebiscites bypassing the other institutions. California worries that powerful lobbies and interest groups can use the referendum to further sectarian interest. Italy’s founding fathers recognised some of the risks and ringfenced referendums. The first was not even in the constitution – in 1946, Italians voted in favour of a republic over a constitutional monarchy. Then they drew up the new constitution which allows referendums in only two circumstances. The first can repeal or confirm a constitutional amendment passed with less than a two thirds majority. The second and much more common referendum can be used only to repeal (not propose) existing ordinary legislation and in any case, key fields are excluded: budget matters, international treaties and amnesties. In order to call for one, half a million signatures have to be collected in three months and for the result to be valid, more than half of the registered voters have to cast a vote. This type of referendum lay dormant for 25 years until conservative elements in the Church and the Christian Democratic party (DC) had the bright idea of using it in 1974 to repeal the newly passed divorce law. The initiative backfired badly with 60% voting against repeal and began a season of civil rights reform spearheaded by the Radical Party (PR) using mainly the referendum or threat of referendum to legalise contraception and abortion, liberalise drug laws, reform family law, and reduce and then abolish military service. As well as being a direct instrument of change, the threat of a referendum was often enough to put an issue on the agenda and push through a reform like the legalisation of abortion in 1978. Along with the major factors which changed Italy in the early ‘90s (end of the Cold War, anti-corruption trials and the debt), the 1991 and 1993 referendums which changed the electoral systems were an important catalyst. Then in the 2000s, those who wanted to maintain the status quo realised that the best strategy was to rely on low turnout to avoid a quorum. It worked until this June when when Italians voted on three referendums producing resounding quorums and showing once again that a majority was so fed up with the political classes that they would have voted to have sunrise in the west if the government was against it. The 1.2 million signature deposited yesterday are proof that this tide is still flowing, and strongly. To reach half a million is not difficult but to more than double the figure is impressive and presages a very high turnout and massive ‘yes’ vote if and when the referendum is held. The next stage is for the Court of Cassation to check the signatures’ validity. There is no doubt that the half million threshold has been reached. Then in January, the Constitutional Court will pronounce on the legal validity; they will almost certainly accept it. Then, if there are no early elections next spring, Italians will vote the referendum. In the meantime, all the parties have to decide what to do. It is a truism that referendums are divisive. Angelino Alfano, the People of Freedom’s new secretary and Berlusconi’s designated successor wants to avoid that division; instead of defending an unpopular law, he would like to change it so that there would be no referendum. While his ally, the Northern League’s Roberto Maroni has said he’s in favour of the referendum even though the law which will be repealed was drafted by a party colleague, Roberto Calderoli who also wants reform rather than repeal. It is decision time for the opposition too. The Democratic Party (PD) (and it’s predecessors) has always been lukewarm on the idea of direct democracy and this time made little effort to gather signatures apart from Arturo Parisi who almost left the party in order to gather signatures. Now the PD support it. Other opposition parties, right, left and centre support the referendum led by Di Pietro’s Italy of Values (IdV) and Vendola’s Left, Ecology and Freedom (SEL). There is little chance of changing the law before April so the government finds itself between a referendum rock and an early election hard place. The only way to avoid the referendum is to have early election. In the midst of a financial crisis and prime ministerial sex scandals, there will be little time for an electoral reform debate. Which is a pity as the electoral system determines the style and texture of a democracy. The present fixed proportional representation party lists allow the party to determine who is elected and cuts any direct link between voters and the elected representative. There is a majority premium for the winning coalition in the chamber. If the referendum passes, Italy will revert to a mixed system with 75% of deputies elected in single member, UK or US style constituencies/districts and 25% from fixed party lists. Voters will have a much bigger voice in who represents them and will at least know who it is. But for the moment, it is all politicians who are considered fair game, a bit like lawyers in some other countries. On that score, have you heard the latest Sicilian politician joke? The Regional Government paid one of its employees 200 hours overtime in August… to clear snow. And, you’re right, it’s not a joke.

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