2015 11 – News from Italy

Listening to Italy

by Orecchiette


Anyone reading Italian Premier Matteo Renzi’s Tweet of 13 October would think that he had been responsible for a popular reform. He gave thanks to those who, like himself, worked to follow the dream of a more straightforward and strong Italy. His Minister for Constitutional Reform, Maria Elena Boschi was also tweeting happily about what had been a beautiful day for herself, and the party and, of course Italy. Photos in the press showed her looking as thrilled as if she’d just won the lottery.

Italy’s lower house, The Camera, had just approved a law to change the composition of, or, as it was called, “to reform”, the upper house. Currently the Italian Senate has 315 elected senatori, although there are a handful of eminent Senators for life. The Camera has 630 deputati. The system now includes a strategy for adding a premium of additional members to the party winning the highest number of seats. This was designed to stop the frequent changes of government by stabilising the position of the party, or coalition in power.

Under the law that Boschi has driven forward for Renzi, the new upper house will have just 100 senatori. Representation is based on the 21 regions, giving a total of 95 senatori, 21 of whom have to be mayors. The Quote Rosa, the pink quota (with a different meaning in Italy) stipulates that there should be “an equilibrium between females and males in the representation”. The remaining 5 senators will be a modification of the existing Senators-for-Life and these Senators Nominated by The President will have a  term of office limited to 7 years. The Senators for Life, now 4 after the death of eminent musician and conductor Claudio Abbado, will add to the total of 100 senatori.

The new Senate’s terms are not entirely clear at this point. Renzi’s Twitter claim of making a stronger Italy is completely contradicted by the proposal for a Senate that is nominated rather than elected by the people. For this to work democratically and openly in an Italy where cronyism, corruption and the mafia run the regions is an impossibility.

The senatori’s reduced terms of reference are the second enormous change. The scope of the senatori will be severely limited. They will be able to scrutinise and vote on new laws, but not to change them. Their decisions do not have to change the intentions of the deputati in the Lower House. Any power will, in essence, be limited to dealings with the regions. Alfiero Grandi, a member of the lower house and of CGIL, (The Confederazione Generale Italiana del Lavoro) , Italy’s largest Trades Union, was critical of the new law. On 28 October he wrote in Liberta e Giustiza that the law would demote the Senate to Serie B, so making a reference to what all Italians would know as the second division of their football league. Powerless.

Having 215 fewer senatori will curtail the expense of running the vast fleets of spotless dark blue official cars in Rome. There will also be a sharp reduction in costs as it is not clear whether the senatori will be paid. La Repubblica (13 October) says that as the mayors are already being paid a salary no more can be expected.

Grandi goes on to make the highly legally significant, but in effect irrelevant point, that Renzi’s government was itself elected under an electoral law (il porcellum) that was declared unconstitutional by the Italian Court. He questions the legitimacy of Renzi’s government and is, like many commentators and parliamentarians, opposed to what is widely seen as a dangerous diminution of democracy in Italy.

The passing of the law itself was a very colourful Italian process. La Repubblica of 13 October started their report by listing the symbolically loaded strategies that the majority of the Lower House had used to register disapproval. In Italy this is done by refusing either to vote or abstain. References were made to Mussolini’s time when his opponents were force-fed caster oil as an unpleasant and undignified torture. Beppe Grillo’s M5S group (Movimento Cinque Stella) were amongst those pointedly absent, leaving their seats patriotically covered with the Italian tricolour flag. Others went out to the Aventino, which is another Mussolini-era protest made by leaving the house and symbolically going up the Aventino Hill. There were placards, passions and refusals to applaud the result. Out of a possible total of 630 deputati, 179 voted in favour – less than a third of the possible total, while only 16 voted against and a mere 7 abstained. 428 deputati had avoided voting.

There will be a referendum to confirm the law. However, this will be held in 2016, possibly in October. Alfiero Grandi speaks for much of the opposition when he talks about Renzi’s burglary of the Constitution. Renzi finds it easy to blackmail or to threaten people to do what he wants. In part because there is never much of an appetite for an election.

Renzi’s manipulations are undermining the strength of support for his Pd party. The ratings vary, but Grillo’s M5S are creeping up to be a credible threat with around 5 points of difference. Berlusconi’s Forza Italia Fi and Salvini’s Lega Nord could stand as a joint force of significance. But they don’t work easily together at present and both leaders are losing approval ratings. Salvini’s Lega Nord were able to build strong support on the anti-migrant vote. But migrants are finding new routes and the interest and pressure has waned.

The Pd is split and the anti-Renzi faction is likely to join with all the other anti-Senate reform parties who are gearing up to join the NO camp when the referendum comes. The left-wing of the Pd have protested often but ineffectually against Renzi. This has had the effect of illuminating the disunity which has discredited the party. This has fuelled its fall and, as a consequence the M5S’s rise. The opposition to the reforms is largely confined to the political classes; the pressure in the country against the reforms is not large. The political class commands little respect in Italy anyway and the Senate changes were met with indifference. The ratings for Renzi himself have diminished. At 60% a year ago, they are now 44%, but are still higher than any other possible leader. At this point Beppe Grillo and the man likely to succeed him, Luigi Di Maio rate 31%, while Silvio Berlusconi lags behind, and is still falling, at 26%. The review of the polls were published by La Repubblica by on 17 October. Things could be different next week.

But, said Ivor Diamante, who commented on the La Repubblica reviews, the immediate danger for Renzi comes from within. He has “personalised” his government. Perhaps he is still continuing to model himself on Tony Blair and his “sofa government”.  The clear divisions in his party are insidious and Diamante considers that they could destabilise his power-base. He concludes by questioning whether a leader such as Renzi with a “personal government” style, might not be able to sustain a future as a Premier without a party behind him.