Italy’s return to the future

Italian lawyer Antonio J. Manca Graziadei explains the history behind Italy’s recent referendum and predicts an uncertain future.

On 4th December 2016 the Italian people voted decisively to reject the Renzi-inspired reform of the Italian constitution of 1948, resulting in Renzi’s resignation. The process has shaken the Italian state to its foundations.

The 1948 constitution was shaped by the coalition of forces (the partisans) that together fought the Nazis and Fascists in the Second World War. These included constitutional monarchists, Marxists and socialists, republicans and catholic democratic. The last of these, sustained by the US and the Vatican, became the Christian Democrats who would dominate Italian politics for the next 50 years. The first outcome of the partisan war (lotta partigiana) was the referendum on 2nd June 1946 won by the republicans with 54% of the vote (12.7 million against 10.7 million for a monarchy).

Costantino Mortati, the most influential Italian constitutional jurist between 1930 and 1970, described the constitution as the product of diametrically opposite political, religious and social views, which frequently could only find a compromise through an open-textured constitution.

The political and social core of the constitution is exemplified by article 3: “It is a duty of the Republic to remove the obstacles of economical and social order, which, limiting de facto the freedom and the egalitarian status of citizens, prevent the full development of the human person and the effective participation of all workers to the political, economical and social organisation of the Country.” The constitutional agenda is inextricably linked to the political parties working together to build unity.

In the aftermath of 1945, the political division reflected the post world war world of the Cold War. Other fundamental issues hotly debated were the form of government and the granting of the same powers and functions to the two houses of parliament. The compromise outcome was a relatively weak prime minister and a president acting as a referee. The Cold War added mistrust between the Vatican, the catholic, anti-communist, pro-USA forces and the socialist/communist, pro-USSR forces. Power was distributed and diluted as much as possible to avoid the risk of unilateral action by any faction. For 30 years the Italian Republic made considerable steps forward, producing the ‘Italian economical miracle’ and social progress, essentially in line with the programme set out in the constitution. In the early eighties Italy’s GNP overtook that of Great Britain, making it the fifth world economical power.

The system came to a political and economical crisis with the fall of the Berlin wall. Between 1992 and 1994 the ‘clean hands’ and other judicial-political scandals created a political vacuum, destroying the parties borne out of the partisan coalition. For the following twenty years, swiftly and cleverly, Berlusconi and his Forza Italia autocratic-populist personal party, transformed from 2007 into the Popolo della Libertà (Freedom People), occupied this empty space taking the dominating position.

In order to tackle the crisis – and assuming that the problem lay in the structure of the constitutional architecture and not in the decaying of political forces some important constitutional reform took place –, from 1989 onwards some important reforms of the Constitution were adopted or attempted in a federalist/devolutionary direction. This twenty year period (1994/2014) has been widely if not misleadingly described as Italy’s ‘Second Republic’, following the abrupt and radical removal of its founding political forces and a gradual modification of its constitution into a ‘democracy of the leader’.

In the following years Italy suffered even greater political, economical and financial crisis, starting in November 2011 with the abrupt and forced demise of Berlusconi. He was replaced for a year by a non-elected emergency technocrat government.

Voting for December 2016 Italian constitutional referendum in Collegno © Mike Dotta /

Voting for December 2016 Italian constitutional referendum in Collegno © Mike Dotta /

In January 2013 the status of the president received a strong material boost from the constitutional court in the ‘Mancino-gate’ affair when President Napolitano requested the destruction of legally acquired wiretaps involving himself and Mancino, under investigation for alleged Mafia related crimes. The court established the absolute and unfettered constitutional protection of all of the president’s conversations and sanctioned the destruction of the wiretaps. Thus President Napolitano gradually became, at least from 2011 onwards, the kingmaker of political majorities, setting out their agenda and insisting on constitutional reform as the paramount emergency task. The court had conferred upon the president the role of supreme constitutional harmoniser.

Italy showed a country divided in three blocks, one being the populist direct democracy party led by the comedian Beppe Grillo. In April 2013 Italy finally overcame its most serious political-institutional crisis since 1948, with the dramatic re-election of President Napolitano for an unprecedented second presidential mandate. The Letta government installed by President Napolitano at the beginning of his second mandate was the direct and functional outcome of deadlock.

On 28th May 2013 JP Morgan published a report summarising the political illnesses of the ‘peripheral’ European countries (Italy foremost) as follows: “The political symptoms of the countries of the south, and particularly their constitutions, adopted following the fall of fascism, present a number of characteristics which appear unfit to promote the greater integration of the European zone... The political systems in the periphery were established in the aftermath of dictatorship, and were defined by that experience. Constitutions tend to show a strong socialist influence, reflecting the political strength that the left wing parties gained after the defeat of fascism. Political systems around the periphery typically display the following features: weak executives; weak central states relative to regions; constitutional protection of labour rights; consensus building systems which foster political client-ism; and the right to protest if unwelcome changes are made to the political status quo... The key test in the coming year will be in Italy, where the new government clearly has an opportunity to engage in meaningful political reform”.

In February 2014 President Napolitano replaced the Letta government with Renzi who he regarded as more capable and more likely to succeed, a strong ‘decisionist’ character, a modern populist Berlusconi style leadership with a wider popular base and political connections. His initial attempt at constitutional reform was cancelled by the constitutional court before the proposal which were put to the latest referendum.

This reform was very heavily and widely contested among the people, politicians, intellectuals, jurists, grass roots movements, media and social media. The reasons for this radical confrontation are many and complex to analyse, a cocktail involving Italy’s republican and democratic history, fears of authoritarian government and perceptions of the EU. The most contentious issues at stake were the following.

  • Promotion by government not parliament: The government had taken upon itself the leading role in drafting, promoting and driving reform.

  • Binary choice: The title of the reform and the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote became an issue and was considered by its opponents to be misleading and biased.

  • Reduction in Senators: The senate was to be reduced from 315 to 100, not directly elected by the people but by regional councils.

  • Complexity and impracticality: This reform was criticised as it introduced different procedures to pass a bill, with considerable complications, confusion and overlapping of competences.

  • Election of president, constitutional court and self-governing council of the judiciary: Opponents objected to the change in the election procedures.

  • Super-majority: The reform was also criticised because the party winning the elections granted a supermajority premium – would be able to substantially elect by itself the president.

  • Relationship between government and parliament: The government could request parliament to examine and vote on a bill within five days of its submission.

  • Relationship between the central stage, regions and local entities: The relationship between the central state, regions and other local entities was to be greatly transformed, shifting more power to the centre.

The referendum has left a country more divided than it has been in the last 20, 30 or 70 years.

The second, decisive, blow to Renzi and his ‘1,000 days’ (the length of his government) political project of reforms came on 25th January, with the constitutional court’s decision to declare the super-majority reform unconstitutional.

The net result of this and related decisions of the constitutional court is the prospect of total instability and a further fragmentation of the political forces. The return to the future of a First Republic, with its compromises, negotiations and apportionment of power seems therefore a likely outcome. The disintegration of the system has already begun with the split inside the PD, where the left has left and created a new political movement called “Article 1”, to recall the first article of the Constitution which reads, “Italy is a democratic Republic, founded on labour”. 2017 will be an interesting year indeed.