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Italy’s Constitutional Referendum: What You Need to Know


Posters in Rome urged people to vote yes on Sunday in a referendum on a constitutional overhaul. Credit Tony Gentile/Reuters

ROME — Italians will vote on Sunday in a wide-ranging referendum, backed by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, that would significantly alter the country’s 68-year-old Constitution and the shape and size of the national government.

The referendum would change 47 of the Constitution’s 139 articles. Among the most significant changes would be provisions to alter the composition of Parliament, the way laws are passed and the balance of power between the central government and the country’s 20 regions, in areas like infrastructure and food safety. If the referendum does not pass, the Constitution will stand as is.

What are the main issues?

The most contentious provision affects the Senate, the upper house of Parliament. Under the current system, legislators in both houses must approve identical drafts of bills before the proposals become law, and any changes made by one house must be sent back to the other for approval.

The referendum proposes a reduction of the Senate to 95 elected members from 315, along with five members nominated by the president. Of the 95, 74 would be chosen from representatives of Italy’s 20 regions, while 21 would be chosen from mayors. The Senate would have a mostly consultative role, and most bills would only need the approval of the lower house.

The referendum would provide for the definitive abolition of Italian provinces — a level of governance below that of the regions — and transfer some powers now overseen by the regions — like civil protection, strategic infrastructure and energy, and major transportation — to the central government in Rome, mostly reversing a change undertaken more than a decade ago, which devolved power to the regions.

The referendum would abolish a national council on the economy and labor that advises the government and Parliament. It would tweak the process for electing judges to Italy’s highest court and its governing body, as well as the procedures for electing the president of the republic, who serves as head of state. It would also make it easier for citizens to propose legislation.

Each article has been the subject of intense debate. In broad terms, supporters say they believe that the changes will help streamline Italy’s sclerotic legislative process, where laws can take months, if not years, to get passed.

Opponents say the changes will concentrate too much power in the hands of the government, a risk that the drafters of the Constitution, written a few years after the downfall of Mussolini’s fascist government, wanted to avoid. Many opponents argue that proposed overhaul of the Senate is too complicated, creates more problems than it will solve, and will grant parliamentary immunity to regional officials, a privilege they do not have.

Why is the referendum on national issues so controversial?

When Mr. Renzi, who took office in a party coup in 2014, was riding high in the opinion polls, he staked his administration on the outcome, vowing to step down should his overhauls be rejected. But since then, his popularity has fallen, and his opponents have jumped on the referendum as a means by which to topple the government. Many polls suggest that the referendum could be seen as a litmus test for the Renzi government — a big risk for the prime minister.

What are the consequences of a yes vote?

Mr. Renzi and his government would remain in power. In any case, Mr. Renzi has vowed to change a law passed in 2015 that would give the winning party a strong majority through the allocation of “bonus seats.” Elections would most likely be held in 2018, when the current Parliament’s term is scheduled to end.

What are the consequences of a no vote?

Mr. Renzi would most likely resign. If he did, President Sergio Mattarella would consult with the political parties and could decide to form a caretaker government, possibly consisting of technocrats, or call early elections.

Mr. Renzi might also choose not to resign, though that appears unlikely, given his statements in recent weeks.

The political instability would probably have broader consequences throughout Europe, where populism is surging. There could also be economic repercussions, though analysts do not agree on the short- or long-term impact of a no vote.

However, several Italian banks are under the lens. Monte dei Paschi di Siena, for example, needs a capital increase, but investors may be leery to jump in if the country finds itself in disarray.

Source: NYT > World

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