The Italian Constitutional Referendum: Political and Institutional Consequences of a Striking “NO”

By Gianluca Passarelli

The electoral results of the constitutional referendum have led to the Prime Minister’s resignation. But let us consider what happened before.

On December 4th 2016, Italian voters expressed their vote on a referendum about constitutional reforms. This was the third referendum of its kind in Italy, with the other two held in 2001 and 2006. The two options presented to voters this time were related to the approval or rejection of the reform promoted by Matteo Renzi’s government and his centre-left parliamentary majority. However, several Democratic Party’s MPs decided not to support Renzi’s position, and used the ballot as a tool to oppose their leader due to different visions of the party, the government, policies, and the reform itself. The reform was approved earlier by an absolute majority in both houses of parliament, but the proposed changes required a two-thirds majority in parliament in order to be implemented without a referendum according to the Italian Constitution (art. 138.3). Since this threshold was not met in parliament, the referendum was called (by the Government) by collecting the required number of voter signatures, as stated by the art. 138.2, while the opponents to the reform were not able in getting the minimum number of required signatures (500.000).

The result of the referendum was both clear and decisive. Approximately 60% of voters cast a “NO” vote in opposition to the proposed reforms and only 40% voted in favor. Perhaps the most striking result was voter turnout. Nearly 70% of eligible voters cast a vote, a percentage that is similar to that reached in general elections in Italy (e.g., 75% in 2013). This figure also confirms that Italy remains a democracy with one of the highest electoral participation rates in the world. Despite this high turnout figure, one of the most notable features of the referendum is the persistent North-South divide in terms of turnout and the level of rejection of the reform. Rejection of the referendum was particularly high in southern regions, with peaks in Sicily, Sardinia, and Campania. Support for the referendum was limited and prevailed in only two regions (i.e., Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna), as well as in the province of Bolzano.

A closer investigation of the result reveals a clear centre/periphery electoral pattern, with “NO” support found in less urbanized areas, and “YES” support located in urban and metropolitan areas, though unable to surpass 50%. A positive correlation appears to exist between the support for the referendum and support for the Democratic Party in recent elections. Therefore, the “centre-periphery” cleavage is not necessarily a surprise because the Democratic Party tends to perform better in urban areas. The age of voters was also a factor with younger voters in general more likely to reject the referendum. Interestingly, nearly two-thirds of Italians who participated in the referendum from abroad supported the reform. Since only a few of the smallest parties in Italy and Renzi’s PD supported the reform, the negative result is not entirely surprising though the overwhelming turnout was.

The precise language of the December 4, 2016 referendum was as follows:

«Do you approve the constitutional bill concerning the proposals to overcome perfect bicameralism, to reduce  the number of members of the Parliament, to reduce the operating costs of said institutions, to abolish CNEL and to revise Title V of the 2nd part of the Constitution, which was approved by the Parliament and published in the Gazzetta Ufficiale n. 88, on April 15, 2016?»

What was really at the stake beyond this question? Although the reform modified the text of 46 of the 138 articles of the Italian Constitution, the “real” changes were far fewer and included minor “revisions” as a consequence of double references (here the text of the reform). In fact, the most significant of the proposed reforms were centered around two key issues: eliminating Italy’s ‘symmetric bicameralism’, and reforming the Italian senate.

The elimination of Italy’s ‘perfect’ or better symmetrical bicameralism was central to the reform. Since both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate maintain an equal share of legislative power, political impasse and obstruction are more common that progress. In fact, as established in 1947, identical texts of Italian laws must be approved by both branches of parliament. Moreover, since both houses confer the confidence to the government, each can autonomously provoke a government’s downfall by withdrawing its confidence. Such kind of bicameralism is unique among contemporary democracies and is a subject of much debate by politicians and scholars alike. It also contributes to political instability especially after 1994, as the risk of different majorities in the two branches has increased due to differences in how and who selects deputies (e.g., minimum voter age is 18 years), and senators (e.g., minimum voter age is 25 years) These different electorates have divergent electoral behaviors that are further accentuated by the regional allocation of seats for the Senate versus the national allocation for the Chamber. Therefore, the electoral geography of Italian politics plays an important role in the allocation of parliamentary seats with increased party and voter volatility.

The collapse of the pre- 1989 party system opened the door to more opinion-based electoral behaviors, together with new parties that were not linked to historical political traditions. The success of the Five Star Movement in 2013, attractive to younger voters (about 44% according to ITANES), and the Northern League since 1992-1994, that is/was especially settled in northern regions, highlight the need for parties to focus on a few regions where the number of seats allocated to the Senate was bigger, as in Lombardy, Campania, or Veneto. This was particularly true for the Senate and especially after 2005. According to those campaigning in favor of the referendum, abandoning the system in which both chambers have equal powers, not only in terms of confidence in a government but also in legislative terms, would have yielded a more efficient and effective government.

The second key reform behind the referendum concerned reducing the Senate’s legislative powers, modifying the (s)election of senators’, and changing the composition of the Senate. Abolishing the senate was never an option, and keeping it in some form permitted the government to maintain regional representation and interests. As noted above, reducing the Senate’s power however was argued to be fundamental to streamlining the Italian legislative process. That said, the Senate would still be consulted on matters and laws concerning constitutional reform, the electoral system, the ratification of international treaties, local and regional government, and the most important EU policies. This was an opposite approach to that of the constitutional reform approved in 2001.

The referendum also included changes to the selection of Italian senators and the composition of the senate. The Senate currently has 315 members, elected by direct popular vote, plus a few life senators (former Presidents of the Republic, and personalities appointed by the President). Under the proposed reform, the Senate would have been composed of 100 members – 95 elected members and 5 chosen by the President of the Republic, and appointed for a seven-year term (the life senators were abolished). Senators were to have been elected based on the share of Italy’s population among the 20 administrative regions: 74 of them would have been members of the regions’ legislative councils and 21 chosen among mayors. One of the most controversial and debated topics over the long electoral campaign was related to the fact that those 95 would have been elected by each region’s council «in conformity with the choices made by the voters’ and ‘in accordance with the votes and composition of each council». In other words, senators were not to be directly elected by voters but selected by regional councils. Since the referendum was rejected, the Senate will maintain its historical functions and composition.

In addition to the key reforms described above, it is worth noting some other amendments included in the referendum. In particular, the reform established that if a referendum was proposed by at least 800,000 citizens, the election will be considered valid if more than half of the total number of voters who took part in the most recent general election voted in it. This change would have reduced the threshold for referendums, as without the reform the threshold is equal to the absolute majority of eligible voters. Moreover, in terms of “direct democracy” tools, the reform stated that it would be mandatory for parliament to discuss a legislative initiative supported by at least 150,000 Italian voters (currently a popular bill proposal must be advanced by at least 50,000 voters but without any provision on the parliament’s duty to discuss it (art. 71.2 of the Constitution).

 Political and institutional consequences

Soon after the exit polls projected that the majority of Italians rejected the proposed referendum, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi quickly announced his resignation. Renzi’s resignation was indeed unusual but expected because he tied the referendum’s success to his own personal political success and support throughout the campaign. Consequently, Renzi’s risky political choice not only undermined his political career but also created another government crisis. In the week following Renzi’s resignation, the new government of Paolo Gentiloni, former Minister of Foreign Affairs in Renzi’s government, took the office. The new «president of the council of the ministers» (as such it is defined the Italian head of the government, art. 92 of the Constitution) has been appointed by the President of the Republic and he should receive the vote of confidence of… both chambers.

Renzi’s resignation also exposed the fissures and divides within the Italian Democratic Party.  Furthermore, regardless of when the next general elections will be held, the current electoral law poses several challenges. In fact, the new law approved in 2005 did not modified the Senate, as the constitutional reform modified the bicameralism and the Senate powers and relationship with the government, as said above. Therefore, the Senate electoral law was not changed also because the reform’s supporters thought the referendum would pass. Moreover, currently we will have separate units for bonus calculation (yes for the Chamber not for the Senate). Therefore, similar majorities cannot be assured.

Then, the constitutional reform was in somehow related to the new electoral law, which came into force in July 2016, albeit never been used. As for the previous 2005 electoral law, the so-called Italicum – as labelled by the Prime Minister Renzi – it is a bonus-adjusted proportional representation system. The majority bonus should be allocated to the most voted list, and no longer to a coalition of parties as in 2005. 340 MPs out of 618 are allocated to the most voted list, provided that it reaches 40% of the valid votes at national level (no further bonus is awarded if the list already had that quota through proportional distribution). If no list would get this many votes, a run-off is held two weeks later between the two most voted lists. No formal alliances (the so-called apparentamento) are allowed between lists running in the first round to compete to the run-off. Moreover, in spite of what happened in 2005, the Italicum foresaw only one legal threshold to enable access to the distribution of seats. Such access is allowed  solely for those lists that will reach at least the 3% of valid votes nationwide. Once the majority bonus is assigned (in this sense the system is majority assuring, whatever the result of the first round), the rest of seats are allocated with PR (Hare quota and largest remainders) to the list that has overcome the national threshold; no mechanism of repêchage has been introduced. Vice versa, an peculiar element of the 1948-1993 system has been re-introduced, given that the new electoral law allow voters to cast up to two preference votes (male/female candidates) for the open candidates (i.e. excluding the head-of-list) of their party, by writing the corresponding names on the ballot.

A first clarification (if any) should come from the Constitutional court, whose decision is scheduled for January 24 2017. The Court could likely drop the majority bonus for the Chamber of Deputies in order to make “more similar” the two electoral systems for the two Houses, albeit the Senate would still have a regional allocation of seats. Moreover, some changes could intervene in the voters’ provisions such as the preference votes. By the way, I am wondering if anybody among politicians and/or scholars is seriously convinced, and arguably convincing, that that PV gives more effective power to the voters in selecting their MPs.

The currently situation has changed the parties’ strategy. The Five Star Movement that firmly opposed the Italicum has quickly changed its mind by calling early elections and a vote with the Italicum electoral law. The political and social contexts offer in fact to the M5s the unique chance to probably win the run-off either against the centre-right, or against the centre-left. Vice versa part of the outgoing Democratic Party’s MPs do not dislike to have a CLPR, with a high district magnitude. However, a possible rebirth of the 1993-2005 electoral law style could give to Italian voters the chance to select MPs via SMD plus some percentage of deputies elected via CLPR. In this context, Renzi has decided to leave the Government also to avoid to be exposed to the opposition’s attacks while preparing a new electoral law. Leaving the floor to his former foreign affairs minister, Renzi – as outgoing party’s secretary – is free to prepare the campaign to obtain the new political investiture to run in the following elections.

The 2016 referendum has generated both political and institutional consequences. Another (!) electoral law could be approved in the following months (even beyond the punctual changes the Court would likely make). Under the Italian electoral sky, it seems that many things happen and nothing change. Theoretically, if the parliament would not approve any other change, it could also be possible to have general elections with two different systems for the Chamber of the Deputies and the Senate/Chamber/senate. It remains that Italy’s has not a coherent electoral law, still has two chambers with same powers, and the fact that the parliament would approve a new electoral law is not granted. The uncertainty is still there. We will (fortunately?) know more soon.

Gianluca Passarelli – Sapienza University, Roma

Italy’s new electoral law

Guest post by Filippo Tronconi


On Monday, 4 May, 2015 the Chamber of deputies has finally approved Italy’s new electoral system. It has not been a consensual decision, as Prime Minister Matteo Renzi had initially hoped. Although Berlusconi’s Forza Italia had voted in favor of an identical text in the previous passage at the Senate, it subsequently withdrew its support. Part of the Democratic Party led by Renzi himself has opposed the reform too, together with Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement and other minor opposition parties.

The new electoral law, similar to the one adopted in 2005 and invalidated by the Constitutional Court in 2013 is a bonus-adjusted proportional representation system. At the same time, many differences have been introduced, the most important of which are 1) the fact that the majority bonus is now allocated to the most voted list, and not to a coalition of parties; 2) a run-off between the two most voted lists is foreseen in the event that no one reaches 40% of valid votes in the first round; 3) a national threshold is set at 3% of valid votes, in place of the multiple thresholds of the old system; 4) preference voting has been re-introduced.

Let’s analyze the functioning of the new system in detail.

Italy’s 630 Deputies are divided into 618 members elected from the national territory, and 12 members elected by Italians living abroad. The latter are elected through proportional representation. Of the 618 national MPs, 340 are allocated to the most voted list, provided that it reaches 40% of the valid votes nationwide. In case no lists reach this threshold, a run-off is held two weeks later between the two most voted lists. Of course, in the unlikely event that a party obtains 340 seats thanks to the proportional distribution, no further bonus is awarded. Therefore, whatever the result, this is a majority-assuring system. Either after the first or the second round, one list gets 340 seats, equal to 54%. A few additional seats are likely to join the majority from the ones elected by Italians living abroad. The remaining seats are allocated proportionally (via Hare quota and largest remainders) to the other parties obtaining at least 3% of the valid votes nationwide; parties below this threshold do not get any parliamentary representation.

While the bonus is allocated in a nationwide arena of competition, intraparty competition is based on 100 districts electing 3 to 9 MPs, depending on the resident population (with particular arrangements for the two Alpine regions of Valle d’Aosta and Trentino-Alto Adige, characterized by the presence of Francophone and German linguistic minorities). In each district, lists are made of a head-of-list, whose name is printed beside the symbol of the respective party, and the remaining candidates, whose number range from half to the full number of seats to be allocated in that district. Voters can express one or two preferences for the “open” candidates (i.e. excluding the head-of-list) of their party, writing the corresponding name or names on the ballot. If a party is entitled to only one seat in a district, that is reserved to the head-of list. If more than one seat must be allocated, they go, after the head-of-list, to the candidates obtaining more preference votes. Heads-of-list (and only they) can be candidates in up to ten different districts; if elected in more than one district they will opt for one after the elections. The remaining districts where a head-of-list has been elected will allocate those seats to candidates chosen by preference vote.

In sum, this is a flexible list system, where voters are allowed to choose among candidates only beyond the head-of-list. The most voted list will have 340 seats, with 10 to 100 of them being filled by “closed” candidates and the remaining 240 to 330 by “open” candidates, depending on how extensively the multi-candidacy rule is used. For opposition parties, the balance between “closed” and “open” MPs will mainly depend on vote fragmentation. In general, the smaller the party, the higher the chances to have only heads-of-list elected.

Several rules are oriented to increase a gender-balanced representation: 1) heads-of-list of the same gender cannot exceed 60% within the districts of each region; 2) “open” candidates are alternated by gender; failing to comply with such rules determines the exclusion of the list from the ballot; 3) voters who express two preference votes need to choose one man and one woman; if not, the second preference is invalid.

One final important remark is in order. All the above refers to the Chamber of Deputies only. The electoral system for the Senate is currently the 2005 one as modified by the ruling of the Constitutional Court, which means open-list proportional representation without majority bonus. A comprehensive Constitutional reform is currently under way in Parliament, which would transform the Senate into a sort of federal chamber, indirectly elected by Regional assemblies and without the power to vote the confidence to the executive. For this reason the new electoral rule for the Chamber will be effective only from July 2016, when the Constitutional reform is expected to complete its second reading in Parliament. It is clear that the effects of the electoral reform would be seriously jeopardized in the event that the current symmetrical bicameralism remains in place.

Overall, the new electoral law is intended to have a strong majoritarian imprinting, similar to the 2005 system for the Chamber of Deputies. The nationwide competition for the bonus makes the Italian territory similar to one big district, and this is expected to lead towards a two-party equilibrium in the long run. On the other hand, the relatively low threshold will leave room for small parties, though preventing them from gaining a pivotal coalitional power, as currently happens. Clearly, nothing prevents parties from agreeing to form ad hoc joint lists before elections and splitting once in parliament, although this will have the cost of not displaying their own symbol on the ballot. Furthermore, the new electoral system cannot be expected to reduce the traditional factionalism of Italian parties, nor the trasformismo of elected representatives. But this is probably something one would better avoid to expect from any electoral system.

Model of the new ballot:
new ballot italy

Young and inexperienced–how common?

New Italian PM Matteo Renzi has never served in the national legislature or cabinet (till now), and is only 39. These are unusual characteristics. Usually parliamentary parties prefer to “vet” their executive talent for a while through having them serve in the legislature and/or cabinet before being elevated to the top job (much more so than in presidential systems, where the candidate for the top job has to be able to win a plurality or majority as an individual–see Samuels and Shugart, 2010, 2014).

How common is it for the head of government of a parliamentary democracy to be as young and inexperienced as Renzi? Some insight comes from the Executives Biographical data of Samuels and Shugart. Here I offer some lists selected with intent to compare Renzi to other PMs. Caveat: in addition to being post-WWII only, the dataset ends with 2005. I won’t be updating it any time soon, but of course I would welcome readers’ additions via comments to this entry.

The first list (Dropbox link) is of all the parliamentary PMs in the dataset who had never served in the legislature before, along with how many years they had served in the cabinet prior to becoming PM (yrscab) and their age when starting their stint as PM (agestart). The list contains only 24 names–these are all the PMs in parliamentary systems who had no prior legislative service. That’s out of 411 total. So lack of legislative experience is quite rare. Exactly one of them was younger than Renzi is now (Vasile Petru Tarlev of Moldova, 38 when he took the job in 2001). Several on this list can be explained through newness of the democratic regime itself (e.g. Mandela) or immediate post-war years. You will note the multiple appearances of a few countries* on the list, including… Italy.

A second list has all parliamentary prime ministers who assumed the position before the age of 40. It is also a short list, and it is heavily dominated by young democracies, mainly in Central-Eastern Europe. It looks like our youth champion is Pandeli Majko of Albania, 31 when he assumed the job in 1998, followed by Mart Laar of Estonia, 32 when he became PM in 1992; Laar began a second stint seven years later, when he was still about the age of Renzi now. We also see from the list that, despite their youth, some of these PMs had considerable experience already in the legislature (e.g. Felix Gaillard of France, 10 years**) and a few had cabinet service (e.g. Stanislav Gross of the Czech Republic and Aigars Kalvitis, 4 years each).

One more list of background relevant to Renzi: how common is it for a PM to have been a mayor, but not a legislator or cabinet minister before elevation to the top job? Renzi might be only the third (see caveat above), following Jirí Paroubek of the Czech Republic (2005) and Jawaharlal Nehru of India (1947, the year of Indian independence). Upon assuming office, Paroubek was 53 and Nehru 58.***

So Renzi’s combination of youth and inexperience, aside from having been mayor of a major city (Florence), is indeed unusual.

Previous related post: Age of PMs and presidents upon assuming the position, in new and old democracies.

* There are five Netherlands PMs on this list, which is a bit surprising. Service in the senate, perhaps? And that makes me wonder if we counted service in the Italian senate, which we should have, given it has confidence powers over the cabinet, unlike most other second chambers.

** Ilir Meta of Albania, 15 years service as MP, is, I am sorry to say, a mistake in the data! He was born in 1969, elected to parliament in 1992, and became PM in 1999 (not 2001, as the list indicates), according to an online bio.

*** Nehru was a mayor? That is what the dataset says. According to Wikipedia, he was elected chairman of the Allahabad Municipal Board in 1923. (Yes, students, I can use Wikipedia. This is a blog post.)

Italian electoral reform deal?

The BBC reports that the center-left Democrats and opposition leader Silvio Berlusconi have struck a deal on electoral system reforms. Such reforms are necessary as a result of the Constitutional Court having invalidated the current law.

I wonder if any readers have details. The BBC says little other than to quote Democrat’s leader Matteo Renzi as saying the new system “favours governability and a bi-polar system, and eliminates the blackmail power of the smallest parties”. And about the current system, the BBC says “The current electoral system has left Italy with a series of shaky coalitions.”

The latter is not a very accurate claim about the current electoral system, which, after all, gave the Democrats and their allies an absolute majority of seats in the Chamber of Deputies despite such fragmentation that they had barely over a quarter of the vote. The deeper problem is the strong bicameralism and the fact that the Senate must have regional representation. The bonus provision–that which manufactured the Chamber majority–is applied region-by-region in the Senate, to which the government is also responsible.

Moreover, currently it seems that it is not small-party blackmail that is the real problem needing fixing (even if we assume that a regionally elected, coequal Senate won’t be changed). Even in the Senate, which is indeed divided, the three biggest individual parties combine for well over 80% of the seats, and the two biggest for just under two thirds. (This refers to numbers at the election, before Silvio Berlusconi’s party split, with the splinter supporting the government after Berluscoini withdrew support from it.) Rather, Italy’s two biggest political forces are relatively polarized, and Italian voters were deeply split into three antagonistic blocs at the last election; in fact, the Democrats likewise led the Senate vote with just 27.7%, yet won over a third of the elected Senators thanks to the bonus provisions. These are hard problems for any electoral reform to fix, unless one is willing to tolerate really extreme disproportionality. But as the results of the 2013 election show, what they have is already quite disproportional!

Italy’s electoral law ruled unconstitutional

Italy’s Constitutional Court has invalidated the country’s electoral law. Reuters:

The constitutional court picked out the “winner’s bonus” system where the coalition with the biggest number of votes automatically gets 55 per cent of the seats in the lower house, irrespective of its actual share of the vote.

That can give a political grouping without an overall majority total control of the lower house, but none at all of the upper house, the Senate, which is voted in through a different system.

Actually, the Senate system is the same, but the bonus is calculated region-by-region, rather than nationwide, as it is in the Chamber.

If the ruling is against the bonus provision, then it is not quite accurate to refer to “a system blamed for creating parliamentary deadlock”.

The article says that options include a two-round system or a return to the 1994-2001 mixed-member system.

The ruling is not retroactive, so it does not invalidate the election held earlier this year.

Thanks to Filippo Tronconi for the tip. Filippo tells me that the provisions for a closed list were also mentioned in the court’s ruling. The reasoning behind the court’s decision will not be released for a few weeks.

Italian presidential selection and PD split

The Italian electoral college (made up of members of parliament and regional representatives) selected Giorgio Napolitano for a second term in the “mostly ceremonial” post of president.

Via (and originally from Corriera della Sera):

Napolitano was elected on April 20 with the votes of the Democratic Party (PD), Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Freedom Party and Mario Monti’s Civic Choice. Despite having earlier ruled out the possibility of a second term, Napolitano changed his mind after Franco Marini and Romano Prodi failed to get elected due to a dramatic split in the PD that prompted its head, Pier Luigi Bersani, and the party’s entire leadership to resign.

One of the faculties that makes the Italian presidency potentially more than ceremonial is the authority to dissolve parliament when a government can’t be formed. (This power does not exist in the final phase of a president’s term, but becomes active again once Napolitano starts his second term today.)

Does this mean a grand coalition (i.e. a Berlusconi-backed government)? Or will there be a new elections (leading to who knows what?)?