Monday, July 29, 2013

Constitutional Reform – the Creeping Summer Transformation of Italy

Italy’s summer lethargy is masking a radical change which if passed will unleash the country’s least attractive instincts and give them a constitutional validity – not far from almost any political initiative in Italy is the acceptance of weakly checked power and the desire to have someone take charge and solve the country’s problems.

At the moment a structural change to both the institutions of the constitution and its intentions is under way. If passed, these will complete the de facto changes which have happened over the last couple of years. All with almost no debate in Italy and none at all abroad. Over the last few days the Five Star Movement (M5S) has brought the issue to the top of their agenda and Il Fatto Quotidiano has launched a petition hoping to reach half a million signatures but for the rest, the heatwave (appropriately named Charon, the ferryman to the Inferno) seems to have stifled any discussion. As well as Charon is the fact that most of the issues are arcane and none will change the number of jobs available or the price of pasta, hence the general lack of discussion.

The first step is a bill, the DDL 813 passed by the Senate a three weeks ago which until the M5S filibuster, was due to go to the Chamber before the end of the month. It is a constitutional amendment which would make future amendments even easier. All codified constitutions are in some way “entrenched”; they are more difficult to change than normal legislation because constitutions should not be subject to the political fads and fashions of the moment. In Italy, an amendment at the moment needs to be passed by both houses twice with at least three months between the readings, a very simple and rapid process compared to most constitutions where the entrenchment is much deeper.

The present bill would change article 138 which regulates constitutional amendments. It would cut the three months to one and set up a bicameral commission which would act in a similar way to a constituent assembly following a tight schedule.

This is a government bill which is unusual. It is explicitly part of the government’s 18 month reform programme and includes a very tight schedule as part of the constitutional amendment. The bicameral committee set up by the amendment must be formed within 15 days of the law’s passage, if not the Speakers will appoint members, and the committee must start work within 30 days. This is also very unusual as constitutional amendments are normally excluded from emergency measures.

Prime Minister Enrico Letta hoped that the bill will be passed by the Chamber at the end of the month so that the two Chambers could re-pass it in early November and the commission will start its work before the end of November. This would be rapid for ordinary legislation, for a constitutional amendment it is supersonic. The M5S filibuster has probably delayed the first passage in the Chamber till September unless the government keeps parliament sitting in August.

This first amendment would then allow the substantial reforms to be passed rapidly. There are two elements in the reform proposals: the nature and relationship between the two chambers of Parliament and the nature of the state and government itself.

On the first score, no one seriously argues in favour of maintaining Italy’s perfect bicameralism where the two chambers have equal power. This flaw and potential wrench in the works has been pointed out since the constitution was passed in 1948 but it was only in February this year that there were different majorities in the Chamber and the Senate. The US is used to the concept of gridlock between the two houses, but a presidential system can deal with it – a parliamentary system which depends on the executive having the confidence of both houses, cannot.

Nor is there much explicit defence of the numbers of parliamentarians: 630 + 315, more than most comparable systems.

There could well be stalling tactics as some senators at least do not like the idea of reducing their powers while both houses are nervous about reducing their numbers.

The other suggestions are much more controversial.

There seems to be a consensus among government party leaders (Democratic Party (PD), People of Freedom (PdL) and Civic Choice (SC)) that the executive should be greatly strengthened either introducing a presidential system or more likely, something similar to the French semi-presidential system. They would at least like to see a directly elected head of state with the implication that the new president would have much greater legitimacy and therefore power.

The vision is still vague but their idea is to confirm President Napolitano’s de facto increase in power, to enhance it and enshrine it in the revised constitution.

Strictly speaking, Napolitano’s job is mostly symbolic but for two years now, he has been increasingly active in everyday politics and party issues. The reforms would make these changes constitutional.

Two weeks ago he admonished parliament not to support a no confidence motion against the minister of the Interior, Angelino Alfano. The week before the Supreme Council of Defence, an advisory body chaired by the president, issued a statement saying that Parliament had no veto on defence matters, in particular on the decision to purchase of 90 F35s. There was no protest from the legislature on either count.

Parliament has already been seriously weakened by the electoral system which gives party leaders the control over who is elected and who is not. Candidates do not campaign and have no link with any territory. They are beholden either to Berlusconi, Monti or Grillo or to the PD apparat.

In 1946-7 the Constituent Assembly drew up a document which gave the legislature the most power. They had just come out of 20 years of dictatorship so wanted to curb the executive. Today, Berlusconi or his successors, or the PD’s aspiring presidents are not going to be Mussolini but the damage which Berlusconi has wrought over the last 20 years and Napolitano’s inexorable slicing away at the legislature’s powers are cause for concern, a concern which is only shown by a few senior constitutional lawyers but no widespread debate.

Without a debate, the only hope is that other Italian vice, getting stuck in a bureaucratic swamp or that the government fall on some other issue.

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