Italy is once again blazing a bit of a trail for western democracies in experimenting with new forms of political representation. in a referendum held on sunday and monday, italian voters approved by a thumping majority an initiative to cut the number of members of the nations two-chamber parliament by more than a third from 945 to 600.
The strong support for the measure, which was backed by 70 per cent of those who voted, reflects the perception of millions of italians that their elected representatives have for too long been overpaid, overprivileged and cut off from the concerns of society. however, it is an open question whether, without more wide-ranging reforms of italys institutions and political practices, the sharp reduction in the number of legislators will bring tangible improvements.
The referendum was staged simultaneously with elections in seven of italys 20 regions. they resulted in modest advances for the hard-right league party of matteo salvini, the former deputy prime minister. however, mr salvinis failure to make big gains increases the likelihood that italys government, a coalition of the centre-left democratic party and the once anti-establishment five star movement, will remain in office until 2022 or even 2023, the latest possible date for the next national elections.
If the regional election results offer the prospect of short-term political stability, the impact of the referendum is less predictable. one clear consequence is that italys political classes must redesign the national electoral system to reflect the reduction in members of parliaments lower house from 630 to 400 and of the upper house senate from 315 to 200.
The chances of reaching a consensus among the ruling coalition parties, the rightwing opposition and small parties that fear losing representation do not look promising. this reform is therefore likely to prove a serious challenge for italys government, just when it is grappling with an economic recession related to the coronavirus pandemic and with the question of how to allocate billions of euros under the eus forthcoming recovery fund programme.
In recent times italy has anticipated trends in other democracies, with the rise in the1990s of silvio berlusconi, a billionairebusinessman who set up a political party that catapulted him to the premiership, and the emergence of five star, an unconventional political movement that entered government.
Reductions in the size of national legislatures are relatively rare in modern democracies. according to matthew bergman of the university of vienna, there were fewer than 20 instances between 1945 and 2008 of a democratic legislature being reduced in size by more than 10 per cent of its members.
However, a similar measure is moving forward in france. president emmanuel macrons government drafted legislation last year that would cut the number of members of the national assembly, the lower house, from 577 to 433 and of the senate from 348 to 261. by contrast, the uks ruling conservative party has dropped proposals to reduce the number of house of commons members from 650 to 600, ostensibly because their brexit-related workload is too great.
In italys case, supporters of the reform, spearheaded by five star, contend that fewer legislators would mean the political process would become less expensive, less corrupt and more efficient.
But the reform does not address the problem of excessive layers of government in italy and the space this opens up for national, regional and local patronage networks operated by political parties and their allies in business and the state administration. moreover, the reform will not in itself limit the power of the parties, rather than citizens, to control the selection of candidates to run for election.
Other democracies will be watching italy with interest to see whether, or how far, this unusual experiment transforms the quality of public life for the better.