Italy’s constitutional reform clears Senate hurdle


The Italian Senate approved Tuesday a reform of the constitution sponsored by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi which will emasculate the upper chamber and return to the central government powers previously devolved to regions.

Getting the bill through the 315-assembly was a hard slog, as Renzi’s government has a slim majority there and faced obstructionist tactics from the opposition and occasional sniping from a dissident faction of the ruling centre-left Democratic Party (PD).

The reform was approved in a 179-16 vote, with 7 abstentions, following weeks of manoeuvring that saw Renzi secure the support of a renegade group of lawmakers who broke ranks from former premier Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party.

The bill turns the upper house into an assembly with 100 seats filled by regional and local politicians, with limited say on national matters. It ends a key constitutional provision requiring all legislation to be approved by both chambers of parliament.

The Senate is also to be stripped of the power to topple national governments through no-confidence votes, while regions will no longer be able to veto major transport, energy or infrastructure projects deemed to be in the national interest.

Renzi and his allies argue that, coupled with a new electoral law that is already on statute books, the constitutional changes will lead to more streamlined and business-friendly governance, supporting growth and ending Italy’s notorious political instability.

Critics retort that the executive will gain too many powers, weakening democratic checks and balances guaranteed by Italy’s postwar constitution, drafted after the collapse of the country’s Fascist regime.

Francesco Galietti, founder of the Policy Sonar think tank, described the constitutional changes as “crucial,” but doubted they could be implemented smoothly, as regions might not give up their powers without a fight.

He told dpa he feared an “unprecedented struggle [over] the end of Italy’s short-lived federalist dreams,” that “severely undermines this government’s stated intention to become an attractive destination for cash-rich foreign investors at a time when Europe is again an interesting place.”

Some opposition figures went to extraordinary lengths to block the reform, like a senator from the far-right Northern League who used a computer algorithm to file nearly 83 million amendments. They were declared inadmissible by Senate Speaker Pietro Grasso.

While it passed a major hurdle, the bill still faces several steps before entering into force. After a constitutionally-required three-month pause, it has to be ratified again by both houses of parliament.

The votes are expected to go relatively smoothly, but not with two-third majorities in favour, leaving the option for opponents to call a referendum on the reform. The entire procedure should be completed by the end of next year.