Increasing use of popular votes, even on minor issues, is eroding the role of country's MPs
by Robert Graham
ABSTRACT. Long and articulate analysis of the institutional crisis in Italy. Starting from the new 18 referendum campaign (neither the Radical Party nor the Movimento Club Pannella are ever mentioned though), the author take a close look to the whole political Italian scene, pointing out the parliament's scarse or void influence, the costant need for technical cabinets, the agreement between government and unions reached outside the parliament, ecc. Quite worried and critic, the analysis is basically well done.
(Financial Times, 14 june 1995)
Preparations are under way to collect enough signatures to hold 18 more referendums in Italy.
The issues range from demilitarising the Guardia di Finanza (the financial police) and making it easier to become a journalist, to allowing abortions in private clinics and easing penalties on light drugs. Only 500,000 signatures are required for a referendum to be held, but the courts have to decide whether the issue is a valid one.
Coming in the wake of last Sunday's 12 referendums, the initiative has raised concerns that this form of direct democracy is getting out of control. Already there are calls for tighter rules, and an increase the number of signatures necessary.
The real worry, however, is that the role of the Italian parliament is being eroded. The issues being put to the public in referendums are ones which any proper functioning parliament should take in its stride as elected representatives of the people.
Indeed, with the exception of the early referendums which touched "big" issues such as divorce and abortion, most have concerned minor aspects of those issues. Last Sunday, for instance, one of the votes involved the state's right to transfer suspected Mafia members to house arrest outside their home towns.
All but two of the newly proposed referendums concern matters which could be settled quickly by intelligent parliamentary debate. Should, for instance, the electorate be asked to decide whether or not hunters can enter private farmland without permission?
The blame for this state of affairs lies with the politicians, as successive parliaments have become slower and slower in dealing with legislation. This is partly because both houses have equal counter-balancing powers and the passage of laws is duplicated throughout. Blockages also reflect the power of the huge number of lobby groups and the proliferation of political parties.
Moreover, with governments lasting no more than nine months on average, each has imposed its own agenda. Thus, the referendums have been a direct response to the stifling of real debate in parliament and the latter's inability to set the agenda for reform.
Over the past decade governments have also resorted increasingly to the decree in legislating on every aspect of life. A decree has immediate effect, but has to be ratified by parliament within 60 days or lapse. However, it can be renewed, and there are plenty of instances of this being done five or six times in a row.
Another reminder of parliament's diminishing role has been the way President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro has felt obliged twice in the past two years to call on non-parliamentarians to head the government. In both instances he has turned to the "technocratic" ranks of the Bank of Italy. Mr Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, the bank's governor, answered the call in May 1993, then last January it was the turn of Mr Lamberto Dini, its former director-general. Mr Dini's government, in fact, is the first since the second world war to be formed entirely of people outside parliament.
Although both men have been scrupulous in their respect for parliament, an important precedent has been established in choosing as premiers non-elected figures with no prior parliamentary experience. The precedent is all the more serious because it has tended to encourage the separation of the executive from the legislature.
The agenda for national debate and legislative innovation is also being usurped in another way. Where important legislation concerns specific interest groups, parliament is excluded in the formative stage of law-making. The most clear-cut example of late has been the way in which reform of the state pensions system has been agreed between two parties - the government and the leaders of the main union confederations.
Both the present government and its predecessor chose to deal with those most directly affected by pensions reform. Only after a deal was agreed in talks lasting from October to May was legislation submitted to parliament. The unions' high-profile role in imposing their own ideas on such a key issue has stung many deputies. The fact that hundreds of ammendments have been submitted to the bill in the past two weeks suggests that, this time at least, deputies believe parliament must recover some of its lost ground.