Italy: the next EU “Hungarian case”?

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Al Congresso annuale dell’ALDE, il partito dei liberali europei, che è in corso a Lisbona, partecipa anche LibMov, che è membro dell’ELF (il Forum Liberale Europeo, che raggruppa i centri studi e le fondazioni che fanno riferimento all’ALDE). LibMov ha diffuso al Congresso questo comunicato.

How Renzi and Berlusconi are recklessly dismantling the Italian constitutional system of checks and balances, thus smoothing the way for future charismatic or totalitarian charlatans to rule the country.

At home, in the EU and abroad the new Italian PM Matteo Renzi is expected to finally deliver the long overdue reforms necessary to set the Italian economy right.
But more than to the much needed economic reforms, Renzi appears primarily committed to constitutional and electoral reforms that will pave the way for any possible future charismatic and populist or totalitarian charlatan to take full control of the Italian political system: including the Constitution, all the guarantees of individual freedom and human rights, and all the rules of the democratic game. And that by simply winning a single general election.
No doubt, reforming the Italian electoral law is essential. The existing one was rushed through Parliament a few weeks before a general election by an outgoing Berlusconi majority only to make it impossible for the successors to get any majority. But with their electoral reform Renzi and Berlusconi have agreed to wipe out by law all possible future competitors, not by winning the majority in a fair competition, but by preventing any serious outsider from ever being represented. Starting from zero, the eight per cent threshold initially provided for by the reform bill of Renzi and Berlusconi – similar thresholds are only requested in countries like Russia, Turkey and Azerbaijan – could only be overstepped by extreme demagogic movements, not by any serious and responsible new political party.
The text already passed by the Senate actually prescribes the 8 % threshold fixed in the agreement between Renzi and Berlusconi for the lists that are not in a coalition (i.e. not allied with either Renzi or Berlusconi), even though the Democratic Party has apparently changed its mind last week, and would now prefer to set an identical threshold for all the lists, running in a coalition or not (probably around 4 or 5 %).
In any case, an electoral threshold could only make sense if necessary to prevent government instability. But, if a huge majority bonus is provided for, an additional electoral threshold can only have the purpose to kill all political minorities and to deprive their electors of any political representation.
In fact, the coalition getting 37% of the votes in a general election (maybe this lower limit will now be raised to 40 %) would get 55% of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies. And if no party or coalition gets more than 37% (or 40 %) of the votes, a run-off election would take place between the two first: so that a coalition getting whatever relative majority in the first ballot (in theory, even smaller than 15% or less, and whatever the turnout in the runoff), would get the absolute majority of the seats in the Chamber. And the absolute majority in both Houses of Parliament is enough to pass whatever major modification of the Constitution, unless a popular referendum is required.
No doubt, there is almost no opposition today in Italy also to the idea of outgrowing the present perfect identity of powers of the two Houses of Parliament. But the constitutional agreement between Renzi and Berlusconi would make the Senate a puppet of the majority in the Chamber – i.e. of the government.
Yet, this new Senate would retain the same powers it now holds concerning the constitutional guarantees.
Renzi and Berlusconi want the Senate no longer to be elected by citizens, but appointed by politicians: by their parties, through the regional parliaments and the major municipalities. Not only these are, in turn, elected with majority electoral systems: hence, no representation of political minorities in the Senate either. The major problem is that this new Senate will not only deal with matters of regional or local interest or concerning the relations between the different levels of government. Given that the primary goal of local governments will always be that of getting the largest possible share of public resources, their representatives will always subordinate everything to that goal. The major party (or coalition) will always get whatever they want from such a “counterpart”.
The most delicate constitutional functions – modifying the Constitution, electing the President of the Republic, electing a third of the judges of the Constitutional Court – will still be carried out by both Houses. Given that the majority in the Senate will be even easier to reach, and will usually be much higher, than in the Chamber of Deputies, paradoxically, modifying the Constitution or electing its guardians will perhaps take a little more time, but will be easier than passing ordinary legislation. (At present, through a national agreement, Renzi’s and Berlusconi’s parties could well decide to be the only two represented in the new Senate).
The President of the Republic, rather than a guarantor and guardian of the Constitution, will thus become a fiduciary of the government. The President appoints another third of the judges of the Constitutional Court: if the President is directly appointed by the governmental majority alone, he or she will obviously appoint as constitutional judges other fiduciaries of that majority. As a consequence, the judicial review, carried out by a Constitutional Court for two thirds directly or indirectly appointed by the parliamentary majority, will virtually be abolished, thus suppressing what has been so far, somehow or other, the main obstacle to political abuses of constitutional rights and rules.
In this situation, a populist or extremist political movement, led by a new charismatic charlatan (possibly much more dangerous than already experimented by Italy in the last twenty years), would find no more constitutional checks and balances in the near future to hold back any authoritarian move, as it was after all the case in the last twenty years. And there is plenty of totalitarian populist movements springing up in Europe these days. Italy was spared, just due to the novelty represented by Renzi last May, but it would be totally reckless to bet that it will be the same in the future. And this is obviously Renzi’s bet. He and his followers appear not even to be able to imagine that the new rules will be in the hands of others than Renzi and his party in the next decades.
If such electoral and constitutional reforms are passed, and if a relative majority, however small, of Italian electors becomes fed up with the present political class in the future, a new charismatic charlatan would find no legal limits, if he or she decides to restrict individual freedom, to discriminate against groups of individuals or to trample on human rights.
Totalitarian populism is threatening all European countries. It is completely reckless to dismantle the entire system of the constitutional checks and balances just to show off how effective and fast a political leader is in reforming his country’s institutions.
Whoever criticises Renzi’s and Berlusconi’s proposals is silenced by most of the media and currently accused of being opposed to “reforms”, to whatever reform necessary to put the Italian economy back on its feet! As a consequence, the real nature of these constitutional and electoral “reforms” and the risks involved have not been grasped outside Italy either.
The legal and constitutional guarantees of individual freedom and human rights must not only be a necessary requisite for admitting new candidate members in the EU. Don’t let another Hungarian case reappear in a matter of years in the EU again.
We ask all Italy’s friends who are conscious of the fragility of liberal constitutional democracy to voice their concern before it is too late.
Lisbon, November 21st 2014