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Italian Republic

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The Constitution of Italy provides for only two kinds of legally binding referendums:

  • a legislative referendum, which can only be called in order to decide on whether to abrogate (ie abolish) totally or partially an existing law;
  • a constitutional referendum, which can only be called in order to decide on whether to approve a constitutional law or amendment.

Despite that the De jure right to hold a legislative referendum has existed since the Italian constitution was approved in late 1947, the necessary legislation detailing the bureaucratic procedures needed to have them was not approved until the early 1970s. As a consequence of this, Italy's first popular referendum was not held until 1974, 27 years after the constitution was first approved.

The first constitutional referendum was held in 2001. 54 years after the constitution was approved.

Contents

Requirements for a legislative referendum

A legislative referendum can be called only at the request five regional councils or 500,000 eligible Italian electors who sign an official validated petition and present a legal Identity document to the committee (usually a political party) collecting the signatures.

Then, the petition (together with the thousands of pages of voter's personal details and signatures) must then be passed to the Court of Cassation which examines the validity of all the data. After the signatures are verified the Constitutional Court of Italy examines subject matter of the petition itself. The court has the power to reject it outright. Many fully valid petitions with the necessary 500,000 signatures have never been accepted as referendums precisely for this reason.

Provided the constitutional court approves the subject matter of the petition, the President of the Republic has to set a date for the vote between April, the 15th, and June, the 15th. The timing can be crucial as turnout at the polling stations may be much lower in summer months when voters take their holidays and the quorum required for the referendum to be valid may not be reached. If the government in office falls, voting on the referendums can be delayed by up to a year.

The final hurdle is that the result of the legislative referendum is only valid if at least a 50% + 1 of all eligible electors go to the polling station and cast their ballot. If this quorum is not met, the referendum in invalid and, in practice, it is a victory for the nays.

The entire bureaucratic process can take more than a year and a half; from the initial gathering of 500,000 signatures in public streets and squares across Italy (which can take several months in itself up to a maximum of three), all the way until electors are called to the polls.

Confusion in wording of legislative referendums

Voters often get confused at the effect their vote will have, as they are being asked to vote "yes" or "no" to abolish an existing law. For example in the 1974 referendum on divorce (which the Catholic Church had strongly petitioned for), voters were being asked whether they wanted to abolish a recent law allowing divorce for the first time in Italian history. Therefore those voting "yes" wanted to outlaw divorce as it had been before the law came into effect, and those voting "no" wanted to retain the law and their newly gained right to divorce.

Political party use of legislative referendums

The political party in Italy that is most closely associated with, and has made most use of, referendums in the last 40 years is the Partito Radicale (Radical Party) led by Marco Pannella. They hold the record for most referendums presented. Despite only receiving around 2.5% of the popular vote in most national elections, the numerous referendums they have proposed over the years have often mobilised the entire Italian political spectrum in support or opposition. They will often use unconventional methods such as prolonged hunger strikes and/or thirst strikes by their leaders to draw attention to their cause. Their largest political battles came in the 1970s and 80's when they successfully campaigned for the right to divorce and the right to abortion.

Other groups have also made use of referendums to raise the profile of their own small political parties or their leaders or to raise awareness of their respective political agendas. Signatures for referendums have been collected by parties across the political spectrum from the right wing Lega Nord (Northern League) opposing a law on immigration in 1998 (this was ruled as inadmissible by the constitutional court when presented), all the way to the left wing Italia dei Valori (Italy of Values) party when leader Antonio Di Pietro collected signatures in 1998 for a change in the electoral law to a full first past the post system. The Italian radical party and the right wing National Alliance were also collecting signatures for the same exact petition on electoral reform at the same time as Di Pietro's party, showing that often parties from vastly different political beliefs will agree on the same themes that they feel should be subject to referendums.

However, often political parties who are even in the same coalition will have very diverse opinions with regard to referendums. A notorious example of this came in 1999 when the right-wing National Alliance, led by Gianfranco Fini, was collecting signatures for two referendums to abolish political party state financing and a change in electoral law to a full first past the post system. (the Italian Radicals and Di Pietro's Italy of Values were also collecting signatures at the same time). Despite spending an enormous amount of manpower and party funds across all of Italy, his main partner in the House of Freedoms coalition, Forza Italia, led by former and soon to be prime minister Berlusconi, offered no political or financial support. When voting for the referendums took place in 2000, Berlusconi almost abstained and said the vote was "mostly pointless" as he would take care of all reforms when he would return to power.

When the House of Liberties coalition returned to power in 2001, Berlusconi did not abolish political party financing and even reintroduced proportional representation into the electoral law. Critics pointed out that these new measures, approved even with the parliamentary votes of Alleanza Nationale itself, were proof that Fini and his party had made a complete Volte-face and abandoned some of their core political reforms in order to stay in power. It was also seen as proof that Fini's influence in the coalition was not as strong as many were led to believe.

Criticism of the legislative referendums

Over the years various criticisms of the legal processes legislative referendums are subjected to have been raised, but as of 2007, no reforms have been made to the constitutional law in this aspect.

Criticism has been made with regard to the following:

  • Number of verified signatures required (500,000) is too high. Critics allege that other democratic countries requirements for referendums are notably lower. Switzerland is often cited as an example where only 50,000 signatures are required for a nationwide referendum.
  • Verification of signatures by the constitutional court is too strict. Political parties often collect above and beyond the required 500,000 signatures required for the referendum. This is because each time thousands of signatures presented are deemed invalid by the constitutional court on various grounds.
  • The admissibility of the subject matter of each referendum which is determined by the constitutional court is too strict. A poignant example of this came in the year 1999 when the Bonino List spent an enormous amount of manpower and funds to collect the necessary signatures for 20 separate referendums. As each referendum was separate and each needed 500,000 signatories, the party presented over 10 million verified signatures to the court. Of these 20, a total of 13 were declared inadmissible by the court and a great portion the party's funds and efforts had been wasted. The party's leader Marco Pannella, speaking on the party's radio station (Radio Radicale) shortly after the decision, called the judges on the court "butchers".
  • The quorum required is undemocratic. The quorum required to render each referendum valid is by far the most controversial aspect of the law and is the most often cited in critic's attacks on the whole legal process. Critics allege that the voter turnout at local, regional and national elections across Italy rarely ever goes past the 80-85% mark. This means that 15-20% of the voting public will never turn up at the polling station in the first place. The remaining 30-35% then fall under the influence of the opinions of the major political parties and reigning institutions, such as the government in office and the Catholic Church. For those political parties or institutions opposed to the referendum being voted on, it is a question of pure numbers. They will call on their supporters to abstain from voting as it is far easier to convince 30-35% of electors to stay home, than is to persuade 50% +1 of electors to go to the polling station and vote "NO". Occasionally this will backfire as it did in June 1991 when former Italian prime minister and socialist party leader, Bettino Craxi, called on voters to "go to the beach" rather than vote on reforming Italy's electoral law. Turnout on that occasion reached over 60%. However since 1995 no referendum has reached the necessary quorum and most major political parties have abandoned signature collecting and actively encourage abstaining. Critics call this an "attack on democracy itself". While voters are obviously free to do as they choose on the day of the referendum, critics say that political parties are applying double standards, firstly asking voters to abstain from going to the polls during referendums and then petitioning for high turnouts during elections for both Italian houses of parliament. Critics have pointed out this defeats the purpose of secret vote, since electoral records of voters at each referendum are kept and are fairly easily accessed. In some cases, rumours have circulated that some anti-democratic employers required their employees' voting cards in their custody during the vote, in an effort to make a referendum fail. In addition, if a referendum fails to meet the quorum, the committee that originally collected the signatures and presented them to the Italian Court of Cassation the will not get any of its expenses refunded.
  • Timing of the referendums can easily skew the quorum. If the date of the vote is set in the summer months or near holiday weekends, when most families are away on vacation, it is more likely to have a smaller turnout and not to reach the quorum required.
  • Inaccurate electoral registers skew the quorum. In 1999 a referendum was held to change Italy's electoral law but the necessary quorum was missed by a margin of less than 0.5%. Subsequent enquiries and investigations after the vote revealed that numerous electoral registers across Italy had people's names listed on them who had either moved away long ago or were deceased. Some of these deceased had actually even voted at the polling station leading a further investigation into identity theft. Critical politicians called these "ghost" voters. The Italian government ordered a massive cleanup of the registers across the country. After this was done it emerged that the 1999 referendum would have met the quorum had the registers been accurate in the first place.

Government response to legislative referendums that meet the quorum

Despite the fact that the results of referendums that meet the quorum are legally binding, successive Italian governments have repeatedly re-introduced laws that are very similar to those that have been abolished by the public. Critics have cited this practice as a blatant disregard of the results of the democratic referendums.

A notorious example of this is the law on political party financing. The law states that after an election, every political party that has been elected to parliament is entitled to a monetary "refund" (taken from public funds) for every single vote they obtained. The Italian public has voted to abolish this law in legislative referendums in 1978 and again in 1993. Both referendums meet the quorum, but the law was reinstated under different terms. A third legislative referendum was held again in 2000 to abolish party financing but it failed to meet the quorum, however, of those who did vote, over 70% voted to abolish the law for the third time.

Another example of this practice concerns Italy's electoral law. In an effort to move Italy to a more stable form of government with an alternating 2 party system, referendums were held in 1991 and 1993 to abolish laws allowing full proportional representation in elections to the Italian Parliament. Despite both referendums meeting the quorum, and a new first-past-the-post electoral system being used in Italian national elections in 1996 and 2001, the Berlusconi government in 2005 fully reinstated proportional representation under a new law.

The practice of successive governments re-introducing laws that have been abolished by the public has been cited as a major factor in voter apathy in the use of referendums as a democratic tool. Critics allege that this is the main reason that no referendums have been able to meet the quorum since 1995, despite high voter turnout for national and regional elections held in the same years.

Requirements for a constitutional referendum

A constitutional referendum can be called only when a constitutional law or constitutional amendment has been approved by both legislative Chambers of the Parliament of Italy (the Italian Chamber of Deputies and Italian Senate) with a majority of less than two thirds in both or either Chamber, and only at the request of one fifth of the members of either Chamber, or 500,000 electors or five regional councils.

In contrast to the legislative referendums, the constitutional referendum is confirmatory. This means a "yes" vote means you want to retain the law, (whereas voting "yes" in a legislative referendum means you want to abolish the law)

In addition, a constitutional referendum is not subject to a quorum and is valid regardless of how many electors go to the polling station

Limitations

It is forbidden to call a referendum regarding financial laws, laws relating to pardons, or the ratification of international treaties: it is therefore not allowed to vote to abolish a tax, to pardon a criminal (note that ancient Rome used to have exactly such an institution, the provocatio ad populum), or against Italy's participation in NATO or the EU Constitution.

Variations

The first further variation was the one-of-a-kind referendums in 1946 (before the consititution was written) in which voters had to chose between retaining the Italian monarchy or establishing a Republic. The republic won by a narrow margin.

The second variation was a consultative referendum held in 1989 in which voters had to express their opinion about conferring a constitutional-drafting role to the European Parliament. The referndum was held after an ad hoc Constitutional law was adopted.

Some political parties have asked, unsuccessfully so far, to held a referendum on EU Constitution. To hold such a referendum a Constitutional amendment or another ad hoc Constitutional law must be firstly adopted.

Italians living abroad

Italian citizens living outside of Italy have always had the right to vote in all referendums and elections being held in Italy (provided they had registered their residence abroad with their relevant consulate). However until late 2001, any citizen wishing to vote, was required to physically return to the city or town in Italy where he or she was registered on the electoral roll. The only exception to this rule was for the Italian elections to the European parliament in which voters could cast their ballot at their nearest consulate but only if they had their residence in one of the other 14 EU countries.

Until 2001 the Italian state offered citizens living abroad a free return train journey to their home town in Italy in order to vote, however the portion of the train journey that was free of charge was only on Italian soil. Any costs incurred in getting from their place of residence abroad to the Italian border had to be covered by the citizen wanting to vote, therefore a free return train journey was hardly an incentive for the large Italian communities living as far away as in the United States, Argentina, Brazil or Australia. For this reason very few Italians abroad made use of this right to vote, unless they lived in cities and towns that bordered to Italy such as in Germany, Switzerland, France and Austria. Various Italian minorities living abroad (notably in the United States) protested frequently at this lack of political representation especially if they paid taxes on property owned in Italy.

After decades of petitioning and fierce debate, the Italian government, in late 2001, finally passed a law allowing Italian citizens living abroad to vote in elections in Italy by postal ballot. Italians wishing to excise this right must first register their residence abroad with their relevant consulate. The first referendum voted on by Italians living aboard by postal ballot was in 2003.

List of referendums

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Referendum on the form of State

Legislative referendums

  • Italian divorce referendum, 1974
  • Italian party funding referendum, 1978
  • Italian abortion referendum, 1981
  • Italian referendum, 1985
  • Italian nuclear power referendum, 1987
  • Italian European Parliament referendum, 1989
  • Italian hunting referendum, 1990 -- on hunting
  • Italian electoral law referendum, 1991 -- for the House of Deputies
  • Italian referendums, 1993 -- on modifiying the Senate electoral law; abolishing public financing of political parties and the abolition of certain ministries
  • Italian referendums, 1995
  • Italian referendums, 1997
  • Italian referendums, 1999
  • Italian referendums, 2000
  • Italian referendums, 2003
  • Italian artificial insemination referendums, 2005
  • Italian electoral law referendums, 2009

Constitutional referendums

  • Italian constitutional referendum, 2001
  • Italian constitutional referendum, 2006

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