In less than 30 days, my mother, an Italian citizen residing in the United States, was abandoned by the two countries she calls home. A month after America elected a misogynist to the White House, the Italian citizenry voted “no” to a referendum attempting to reshape the Italian Constitution on December 4, leaving many feeling like the country had forsaken progress for politics. I spent dinner listening to my mother grumble in distress.
Currently, the Italian parliament is a bicameral legislature, which means it has two houses: a lower Chamber of Deputies, which is elected directly, and an upper Senate of the Republic, which is not. To elect senators, citizens vote for the party they support (Italy has a multi-party system), and the heads of the parties choose senators proportional to the percentage of the popular vote received; citizens have no say in that choice. In order to pass, all Italian legislation must be ratified by both the Senate and Chamber of Deputies.
The referendum, which was backed heavily by former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, aimed to take away the Senate’s power to approve legislation and make the Chamber of Deputies the dominant legislative body.
A bicameral legislature makes passing laws through the Italian government a cumbersome and inefficient process. Forcing all laws to be passed through two chambers creates long waiting periods; for instance, this referendum was originally proposed as a bill, and after two years of political infighting, it was unable to pass, a huge waste of time and resources.
Italy’s constitution is purposefully designed to limit the power of both houses and the prime minister in reaction to the rise of Benito Mussolini and fascism. However, 60 years have made this system obsolete, and as a result, Italy’s government is weak and indecisive, leading to a failing economy and a shrinking young labor force as millennials leave a nation they perceive cannot offer them anything. Changing the legislature would allow the government to act more decisively and give the Prime Minister the ability to have more laws passed, increasing the government’s effectiveness and ability to evolve.
Beyond its pragmatic benefits, the referendum’s failure is also emblematic of the rise of the right throughout Europe. In January, Renzi attached his political future to the referendum by declaring that he would resign if it failed. Renzi was a young, energetic prime minister in a political arena that has been dominated by the quasi-dictator Silvio Berlusconi for decades, a man who has been sued multiple times for corruption. Renzi promised to bring a fresh look to Italian politics and was trying to pass labor, economic, and immigration reforms that could bring the nation beyond its barbaric laws and openly racist, homophobic political rhetoric.
When he tied the referendum to his reelection, Renzi’s opposition, namely the populist Five Star party led by Beppe Grillo, began to campaign against the referendum. The Five Star movement claims to be anti-establishment, but the referendum’s refusal has only re-entrenched the antiquated Italian legislature, which greatly diminishes the possibility of future reforms. Opposing the referendum was a calculated political gesture to remove Renzi, showing how politics came before Italy’s well-being. Regardless of whether Renzi represents Italy’s best hopes for the future, his resignation will launch the government into a state of turmoil due to the appointment of an interim prime minister. In the midst of a refugee crisis and economic downturn, this is particularly troublesome—and it is difficult to imagine the Five Star movement didn’t understand these consequences.
Moreover, the referendum sought to restructure the Senate to be more democratic and would remove the ability for Senators to serve for life, decreasing the power of old, out-of-touch politicians. Without a change, the older generation (such as Berlusconi’s “Forza Italia” and other conservative parties), which staunchly opposes change, will continue to have the upper-hand in the government. Senators will continue to wield enormous power, despite not being directly elected.
It seems that throughout the world, reactionary politics are seizing power; from the conservative powerhouse headed by Marine Le Pen in France to the resignation of Matteo Renzi in Italy, progress seems to be crumbling before us.
Younger generations have been leaving Italy in search of opportunity, and many young Americans are looking for ways to escape a Trump presidency. We should not be so quick to lose hope; we should not run, but rather stay and fight. Just as Americans are protesting Trump’s cabinet picks and hoping to change his policies for the better, Italians should continue to vote and demonstrate an investment in their own government so that reactionary elites cannot take over. Italian politics in particular, as a multi-party system, can be heavily impacted by political minorities. As a dual citizen, I know that when I turn 18 and can vote in Italian elections, I will be mailing in my ballot alongside my mother’s.