Reforming the Italian Senate

Please note that this post was originally published on the UCL Constitution Unit‘s blog, and is available here.

By Roberta Damiani

The UK is far from the only country with a long-standing controversy over the composition and powers of its second chamber. In this post Roberta Damiani provides an update on the latest attempt to reform the Italian Senate. Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is proposing to significantly reduce the Senate’s powers, and to move from direct to indirect elections, but it is far from certain that he will be successful.

The House of Lords has recently come under the spotlight for challenging the elected chamber on tax credit cuts, reviving the never-ending debate about the appropriate powers of a second chamber. But the UK is not the only European country experiencing such controversy: in Italy, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s government is pursuing radical Senate reform. There too, both the powers and the composition of the second chamber are at stake. And there too, reformers may find that achieving major change is harder than they first imagined.

The starting point for the debate in Italy is a feature of the country’s political system that is almost unique among parliamentary democracies: so-called ‘perfect’ bicameralism. That is, the two parliamentary chambers have exactly the same powers as each other – including on financial matters, and even with respect to votes of confidence in the government. Both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate also share the legitimacy of direct election: the latter currently consists of 315 elected members, plus a few life senators, who are either former Presidents of the Republic or highly accomplished citizens appointed by the President.

Strong bicameralism was a core principle at the founding of the Italian republic. As Carlo Fusaro put it in a previous post on this blog, at the drafting of the new Italian Constitution in 1947, ‘the idea of a strict functional equality (including equal powers over legislation) was reaffirmed and Italy’s uniquely undifferentiated bicameral parliament was born’. The aim was to prevent the rise of another dictatorship.

But the extensive powers of the Senate have often been blamed for political gridlock, very common in Italian politics. Becker and Saalfeld, in their analysis of 17 parliaments in Europe, found that while the 17-country average for a bill to be approved was 128 hours, in Italy the process took over 600 hours. The government is therefore seeking to reduce the powers of the Senate, claiming that this would speed up parliamentary proceedings and ensure governability.

Renzi’s reform has already undergone a few changes since it was first brought forward in the summer of 2014. The original plan sought to turn the chamber into a ‘Senate of the [local] Autonomies’, whose members would have been elected by members of the regional administrations. This was the most controversial point of the reform as turning a directly elected chamber into an indirectly elected one, stripping it not only of its powers but also of much of its democratic legitimacy, would be difficult to sell to the electorate. Following several internal disagreements in Renzi’s Partito Democratico, this proposal was altered slightly in order to accommodate a minority of dissenters. According to the current draft citizens will now have the option, when voting in regional elections, to indicate which regional councillors should also be senators. The new Senate would see a reduction in the number of members from 315 to 100, of whom 74 would be regional councillors, 21 would be mayors, and five would be presidential appointees (with this last group now appointed for seven years rather than for life).

The new chamber will have considerably fewer powers than the current Senate does. It will retain its veto on constitutional matters (broadly defined), but the Chamber of Deputies will have the final say on ordinary bills. The Senate will still be able to examine the latter if a third of its members request to do so within ten days after the Chamber’s approval, and will be able to suggest changes, but the Chamber will be free to reject these. For bills relating to the legislative powers of regional administrations (as defined in a specific paragraph of Article 117 in the Constitution), the Chamber of Deputies will need an absolute majority to reject the Senate’s amendments. As pointed out by constitutional expert Michele Ainis, the allocation of such competences will be far from straightforward, and in all likelihood the two chambers will often clash over their legislative prerogatives. Furthermore, the Senate will no longer be able to vote in confidence votes.

Despite some scepticism that the Senate would vote in favour of cutting its own powers, the draft has now been approved by both chambers. However, this was not an entirely smooth process. The opposition walked out before the vote in the Senate, which took place on 13 October and was won by 179 votes to 16. Northern League Senator Roberto Calderoli had presented over 82 million amendments, generated with a computer algorithm, in order to slow down the proceedings.

However, the process to modify the Italian Constitution is a long and complex one, and this is not the end of the story. Both chambers need to approve any constitutional reform in two consecutive sittings, which must be separated by at least a three-month interval, and an absolute majority in both chambers is required in the second sitting. Hence, we now have to wait for the proposal to go through parliament again next year. Renzi has also announced his intention to hold a referendum, which is provisionally scheduled for around autumn 2016. A referendum is constitutionally required only if an absolute majority has not been met in both chambers. Nevertheless, Renzi seemed to think that promising a referendum would give his reforms a boost by granting them an aura of popular legitimacy. This is looking increasingly like a risky move. According to a recent opinion poll, 70 per cent of respondents do not understand what Renzi’s reform entails; in terms of support, 45 per cent claim to be in favour, 30 per cent to be against, and as many as 24 per cent are undecided.

This is far from the first attempt to modify the Italian upper chamber, and until now they have all been unsuccessful. The last one dates back to 2006, when the electorate was called to vote in a referendum over a new constitutional structure supported by Berlusconi’s government, and particularly by the separatist Northern League. The reform focused on devolution to regional governments but also proposed to increase the Prime Minister’s powers. It would have turned the upper chamber into a ‘Federal Senate’, with jurisdiction over regional matters only, leaving national ones (such as foreign policy and defence) to the Chamber of Deputies. By the time the referendum took place on 25 June 2006 a new centre-left government, which opposed the reform, had been elected. In the end, 61.29% of voters rejected the proposal, with a turnout of 52.46%.

Hence, if there is one thing that can be learned about chances of reform in Italy it is that, despite Renzi’s optimism, his Senate reform might still undergo significant changes over the next sittings, be stalled, or even be abandoned altogether.

Roberta DamianiRoberta Damiani is a Research Volunteer at The Constitution Unit.

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