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Italy is set to vote in a constitutional referendum, but this is about much more than Renzi’s reforms, argues Alastair Stephens

The EU is on the verge of another crisis, driven by mass anger at austerity and a growing rejection of the political consensus which has dominated European politics for a generation.

Unless Prime Minister Matteo Renzi can cause a dramatic change, his flagship package of constitutional reform will be rejected on Sunday in the country’s third constitutional referendum since the creation of the Italian Republic in 1946.

This will be the crisis arriving very much in the heart of Europe. Italy is the third largest economy in the Eurozone, a founder member of European project (created after all by the Treaty of Rome) and until recently, one of the most Euroenthusiastic countries on the continent.


Renzi and his Democratic Party (the heirs to the Communist Party, formerly the largest of its kind in the western world, but now effectively Italy’s Social Democratic party) believe that Italy is ‘over governed’, there are too many elected bodies with too much power.

They propose to make the most sweeping changes to the country’s ‘anti-Fascist’ constitution, adopted in the wake of the fall of Mussolini’s regime.

Under the proposed amendments:

  • The Senate, which at present has equal power to the lower house, would cease to be directly elected, would shrink massively (to just 95 members) and would lose most its powers.
  • Reference to the country’s Provinces (the equivalent of our counties) would be removed allowing them then to be either neutered or abolished by Parliament.
  • The National Council for Economics and Labour, a government advisory body made up of economic experts and representatives of employers, trade unions and civil society bodies would be abolished.


The country’s existing constitution was heavily influenced by the left when it was written by a Constituent assembly in 1947. It was designed to enshrine social rights (it’s not for no reason that there is a giant cog in the state emblem), and prevent the accumulation of too much power in too few hands.

Many of its provisions proved to be inoperable or were effectively put on ice through the anti-Communist hysteria of the 1950s (such as provisions for regional government), but were revived during the upsurge of the left in the 1970s.

Much brought into disrepute by the behaviour of the country’s politicians, it is still however seen as a bulwark by many citizens against authoritarianism and as enshrining the social gains made in the post war period.

Electoral pigsty

Particularly controversial has also been the country’s electoral law, decided by act of parliament.

This was altered under Silvio Berlusconi’s right wing government. So egregious and undemocratic was the new law, it quickly became known as the Porcellum (Pig Law).

Renzi’s solution to this was the so-called Italicum law passed last year. This awards a majority in parliament to whichever party or coalition won more than 40% of the vote. Designed to create a two-party system it follows attempts over the last twenty five years to do this, none of which have altered the fragmented and fractious nature of Italian parties and their all too numerous liderini.


The referendum proposals have faced widespread opposition. Originally hatched with Berlusconi, that particularly bankrupt politician, Renzi then did him over in the election of the president and the former withdrew support. This left as the only backers the Democratic Party, its ally, the New Centre Right (a split from Berlusconi) along with a bevy of smaller parties, including Mario Monti’s Civic Choice (the third to last saviour of Italian politics). It is also backed by the employers’ federation and CISL, the Catholic-aligned union federation.

Opposing are parties on both left and right including the inheritors of the traditions of Rifondazione Communista, now called the Si (Italian Left), and Possibile, a left split from the Democrats led by former Renzi collaborator Pippo Civati and the Greens.

Also opposed are the CGIL, the left-aligned union federation, the Association of Partisans, and Beppe Grillo’s populist Five Star Movement.

Fortunately the left has not lost its bottle and fallen in behind Renzi because the right oppose the changes too. And the right, from Berlusconi through to the Nothern League and the Fascists, are opposed to the amendments, if for rather more opportunistic reasons.


The radical changes to the constitution have less to do however with untangling the country’s blocked political system than opening the way for fundamental neoliberal reform.

The country’s anti-fascist constitution has long been seen, along with those of some other European countries, as a block to neoliberalism due to their excessive democracy and checks and balances. Written in the wake of World War II, they were in many ways meant to express the compromise between mass workers movements and ruling capitalist classes. Neoliberalism is the ripping up of that deal and the imposition of unfettered capitalist domination of all areas of life. The means to do this however lies with the state.

Where full neoliberalism has been imposed, the political system has often been the first thing to change. This was the case in those pioneer states, Chile and Turkey, where military coups were followed by the construction of grossly undemocratic constitutional orders.

This was not as necessary in developed countries at the vanguard of this process of reaction. The US system, never having to survive the process of democratisation and class compromise that followed the Second World War (and later the transition which followed the fall of the Fascist regimes in Southern Europe in the 1970s), its ‘democratic’ processes dating back to a pre-industrial era, had never done anything other than represent the unalloyed the interests of the ruling class.

In Britain without even a written constitution, the left, as represented by the Labour Party, has not, since becoming one half of the two party system, attempted to democratise the state at all. That chicken came home to roost with Thatcher, who used the undemocratic nature of the electoral system and the almost unlimited powers of government to enforce sweeping change, and all on a minority of the vote. Other layers of government and elected bodies which got in the way were neutered or simply abolished.

Neoliberal reform of the sort implemented by Thatcher was simply impossible in Europe, and despite many pretenders to the title of a ‘European Thatcher’, none have succeeded.

Mass anger

As in most referendums, the actual constitutional arguments matter less than party loyalties and people’s feelings about present issues.

The most important background feature is people being sick of the country’s economic misery. Italy’s economy has stagnated for two decades and there is a widespread feeling of crisis. Unemployment is stubbornly high, especially amongst the young.

The country’s political classes are for this reason desperately unpopular.

Membership of the European Union, and later the Euro, was seen by most people as a guard against the incompetence and corruption of their own ruling elite.

The years of austerity forced onto the country by the European Union and the European Central Bank have shattered many of these illusions.

Europe’s interference in domestic politics has been equally displeasing, as people on the right were angered by the ousting of Berlusconi by the triad of the EU, ECB and markets. His first replacement, the unelected, neoliberal economist, Mario Monti, angering the left before being ignominiously ousted, was then replaced by “Italy’s Blair”, Matteo Renzi.

Like his idol, he has gutted his own party. The Democrats are in crisis with their membership in free fall.

On Sunday, angry voters on all sides look set to reject Renzi’s proposals in a referendum – a matter on which he has staked his premiership. His fall from power could mean the beginning of the end for the Euro.

Alastair Stephens

Alastair Stephens has been a socialist his whole adult life and has been active in Unison and the TGWU. He studied Russian at Portsmouth, Middle East Politics at SOAS and writes regularly for the Counterfire website.