A version of this article was first published in The New Federalist
By Gael Sirello and Olivier Sirello
In the last few months, despite the profound political changes Italy seems to have undergone, the choices of Matteo Renzi, appointed Prime Minister in early 2013 and known by his adversaries as “il rottamatore”, represent actually nothing more than a façade.
In a period of profound institutional crisis that risks to undermine the social contract between Italians and their Republic, Renzi’s government means to pursue and achieve at least three objectives: an electoral reform to make the political system more stable, a constitutional reform to make Italian institutions more modern and, finally, a structural debt reform to meet the EC requirements. For the time being, only one of these ambitious and necessary reforms has been partially achieved. With the support of Berlusconi’s political party, Forza Italia, the electoral reform known as Italicum was approved by the Senate in the first reading with more than 180 votes late in January. On the other hand, only a draft of the constitutional reform, which requires a very large entente in the Parliament, has been made, without significant political results yet. Similarly the structural reforms fiercely requested by the EU concerning reduction of deficit, public spending to reduce the debt-GDP ratio and the reinforcement of foreign investments have not yet been completely implemented in the agenda of the Italian executive for fear of the inevitable political sacrifice these would entail.
Before showing the real structural impacts of the above-mentioned electoral reform, it is worth reminding how this reform will change the current electoral and political system. Approved with a simple majority at the Senate, the new electoral reform seems to be heading towards the end of the legislative process, introducing new elements to make the yet fragile bipolar Italian system more stable and politically stronger. According to this reform, simple lists of candidates, principally represented by one or two parties with the same symbol and parliamentary group, rather than larger coalitions, will obtain a supplementary number of seats to reinforce the winner party’s election. In opposition with the previous law, sentenced as “unconstitutional” by the Italian Constitutional Court, the main representative of the list is chosen directly by the parties and the rest of the candidates will be elected according to the number of votes they get. The central point of the reform is the introduction of a second ballot. Comparable to the French system, if any political party obtains more than 40% after the first round of voting there will be a second ballot between the two parties having obtained the most important results during the first round.
As a consequence, the political system should be reinforced: a candidate will undoubtedly win the election and coalitions will acquire less importance than in the past. In Italy, as the 2013 General Elections clearly showed, the political majority has always constituted a difficult pathway for the supposed winner of the elections, the latter generally needing to cope with other parties to form a strong coalition that will support his or her government. Sometimes, the winner fails to do so: this happened recently with Pier Luigi Bersani, Partito Democratico, who, despite incontestably being the winner of the elections, could not form a government without the consensus of either the Movement Five Stars or Forza Italia.
Having said this, it seems that the new electoral reform will bring – although under these strict and questionable conditions – at least more political stability to the fragile Italian political system, and achieve the indispensable conditions for achieving structural reforms. However, many critiques may be made regarding its fundamental structure, for example making it impossible for citizens to directly elect a large percentage of their representatives as many of them are nominated directly by political parties. In this perspective, the electoral reform should have been a step forward towards more direct relations between the citizens and their institutions, and not a step backwards, towards previous electoral reforms which are similar in this view. Another issue with this electoral reform it that it incites mere compromise between two opposite camps for mutual political interests, and doesn’t represent the political expression of the democratic renewal that Italy deeply needs.
At first glance, the impact of this electoral reform on the structural reforms required by the European Union and in particular by the European Commission is difficult to evaluate. The electoral reform should have no direct economic impact, neither on Italy’s GDP nor on its productivity, and the two reforms should be independant. In practise, despite the arguments brought by Matteo Salvini, leader of the Eurosceptic Northern League, they are not. A stronger and more stable political executive can deal better with serious economic reforms, and the new electoral reform may thus improve Italy’s governability so as it can cope with the serious economic challenges Europe increasingly needs to deal with. Even if it is too early to predict results, hopefully, when the new electoral law will be enforced in early 2016, the government will be backed by a strong majority in the Parliament as an essential support for its reforms and policies to achieve higher economic objectives.
The need for effective and structural reforms in Italy is more than political necessity, it is an actual fact. The high debt-GDP rate and the historically highest rate of unemployment, particularly among the younger generations, are a clear expression of the political need to structurally reform Italy in order to pave its way towards stronger economic performances. In order to achieve growth again, Italy needs profound structural reforms, insisting in particular on public finance, State organization and on making the economy more dynamic. This includes the reduction of fiscal deficit and public expenditure by establishing more social measures – for instance with a more progressive taxation system and the imposition of a “high fortune” tax on the French model of the Impôt sur la fortune (ISF).
Besides, learning from past experiences, in particular from Greece’s (unfortunate situation), we should think carefully about the issues and threats posed by austerity measures: reducing public spending should not mean blindly cutting social and public services but in fact reducing superfluous expenses, in the public administration as well as in some ministries, such as defence. These are difficult choices and important responsibilities, which imply a common sense of (social) justice: Reducing public expenditures should be accompanied by the reduction of privileges, without undermining the essence of the welfare state that constitutes undeniably the foundation of the European dream. All these reforms can only be proposed by a stronger Italian executive and approved by a large majority in the Parliament, which, hopefully, will be provided with the new electoral reform.
Thus, deeply believing that Italy needs profound structural reforms not only to meet Brussels’ requirements but also to respond to the social difficulties of many Italians, the new Italian electoral reform seems to provide Italy at least with a stronger executive backed by a larger majority in the Parliament. In this sense, governability being extremely important while dealing with serious economic challenges, despite being critical of many political aspects of Italicum, we believe that its principal effect will be to give more responsibility to the winning political parties which will need to make essential decisions, no longer being able to postpone them because of fragile coalitions unwilling to support the government.Featured Image Credit: IEuropean Parliament, Flickr CC. License available here.