News Analysis: Referendum on constitutional reform to bring uncertainties to Italy's future

by Stefania Fumo

ROME, Oct. 19 (Xinhua) -- The outcome of Italy's upcoming referendum on a constitutional reform could bring uncertainties to the future of the third largest eurozoneeconomy amid public discontent, sluggish economic recovery and the advance of populist parties.

Italy will hold a national referendum on a constitutional reform on Dec. 4.

Under the reform scheme, Italy will drop the so-called "perfect bicameralism" system, which has been in effect in the country since its constitution entered into force in 1948.

The reform law, which has already been approved by the parliament, would streamline Italy's notoriously expensive and inefficient political machinery and save 500 million euros (549 million U.S. dollars) a year in operating costs.

Senate seats will be reduced to 100 from 315 with limited lawmaking powers. Future senators would be selected among elected members of regional assemblies and mayors, and serve for free.

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi initially staked his political future on the outcome of the referendum, saying he was ready to resign if a majority of the people opposed his reform.

However, he has since backed down from that stance in hopes of defusing what has become a contentious debate in Italy stoked by leftist dissenters from within his own center-left Democratic Party (PD) and the center-right opposition and, most importantly, the populist, anti-euro Five Star Movement (M5S).

On the one hand, the victory of a "No" vote in the referendum day could weaken the prime minister and give the M5S -- currently the second-largest party in Italy after Renzi's PD -- a real chance at winning the next general election.

If that happens, the staunchly anti-euro M5S and its raucous leader Beppe Grillo -- he was a comedian before turning to politics in 2009 -- has vowed to call a referendum on a possible Italexit.

On the other hand, if "Yes" wins, many fear that tampering with the current bicameral system could give rise to the one-party rule, as happened before World War II.

Critics say a watered-down senate could pave the way for an excessive concentration of power in the hands of a few by eliminating key checks and balances.

Gustavo Zagrebelsky, a Constitutional Court judge and law professor, said in a recent televised debate with Renzi that the constitutional reform would usher in what he and other opponents call an "authoritarian drift" that would strengthen Italy's "oligarchy" and vested interests.

However, Sergio Fabbrini, director for School of Government in LUISS University, said that the reform would modernize Italy.

If approved, Renzi's reform would modernize Italy because the current mechanism was thought up in the immediate post-war period and has become obsolete, Fabbrini said.

"Today, the real checks and balances come from the European Union-- just think about a key piece of legislation such as the national budget, which must be vetted by the European Commission before it can become law," Fabbrini told Xinhua.

The expert also said the post-reform rise to power of the M5S would not necessarily spell doom for the eurozone.

"A possible M5S government would produce confusion," he said. "Just look at what's happening in Rome," he said referring to the administration of Mayor Virginia Raggi from the M5S, which has been plagued by a series of missteps and resignations since Raggi's landslide victory in June local


"You must not fall prey to doomsday scenarios. Democratic checks and balances -- such as the option of a parliamentary no-confidence vote -- would still be in place," Fabbrini said.

Fabbrini said a narrow win or defeat is most likely, adding that the former would likely lead to a diluted version of Renzi's constitutional reform, while a narrow loss would entail sticking with the current electoral system.

"It is unlikely that a clear majority will emerge (from the Dec. 4 referendum), and the transition will probably be more gradual than Renzi expects it to be," he said.

[ Editor: meng ]


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