Everything you need to know about Sunday's Italian referendum

December 4, 2016, 7:40am

Italians are heading to the polls on Sunday to decide whether or not to change the constitution. The current system was adopted in 1948 in an attempt to avoid a return to fascism. The constitution has long been the cornerstone of Italian democracy, but it has often been blamed for stagnation in the country, since the bicameral nature of the Italian parliament means that the upper and lower houses effectively have the same powers.

The current prime minister, Matteo Renzi, who pushed for the proposed reforms, has hinted that he would resign if he loses the referendum. “This opportunity won’t happen again,” he said this week. “I won’t be playing the game if we leave the country as it is now and condemn our children.”

So what are Italians voting for?

Put simply, people are voting whether or not to accept changes to the constitution and reform of the senate. The amendments have already been approved by parliament by a slim margin. They now need to be voted in by the Italian electorate.

How does the current system work?

In its present form, Italy has a unique parliamentary government system, referred to as perfectly symmetric bicameralism. This means that it is composed of a lower house, the Chamber of Deputies (630 elected members, deputati) and an upper house, the Senate of the Republic (315 elected members, senatori).

Both have equal powers and perform identical functions. In order to pass laws, for example, the government must have the approval of both houses. This process is known as la navetta parlamentare (the parliamentary shuttle) and sees a bill pass to and fro between both houses until they agree on the wording — only then can a law be ratified. This process is often lengthy and can be controversial. For example, the stepchild adoption clause was dropped from the civil union bill earlier this year in order to make sure that it would pass the senate.

How would things change under the new constitution?

If Italians vote in favor of amending the constitution, the power of the senate would be reduced considerably. The number of senators would be cut from 320 to 100 and would be made up of regional councilors, mayors and a handful of senators for life. The deputies in the lower house would remain with 630 seats, and the government would effectively be given more powers to push laws through quickly. The senate would then only really have a say in big issues like the ratification of EU treaties and other constitutional reforms.

What do the critics say?

Some critics agree there is a need for change in the constitution but think the amendments would give the government too much power. Others say the constitution is sacred and shouldn’t be touched. The anti-establishment Five Star Movement party, led by Beppe Grillo, has been the most vocal critic of the reforms, along with the far-right Northern League.

Ironically, members of Renzi’s own party are also against the reforms, including former party secretary Pier Luigi Bersani and former prime minister Massimo D’Alema. Even former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi has weighed in: “If No wins, we have a lot to do, if Yes wins, we had better all leave the country, because democracy would be less.”

Would the referendum result trigger ‘Italy’s Brexit’?

No, this is only a referendum on the constitution. Italian law does not allow referendums to change international treaties, so leaving the Europe Union, is — for now — out of the question. However, if Renzi were to resign, it could trigger a new general election in 2017 and see the Five Star Movement gain further ground.

What happens if Italians vote No to change?

Not much in terms of the constitution. However, the result could trigger new elections in 2017. Earlier this year, the prime minister said he would walk away from politics if he lost the referendum. Since then he has softened his stance, saying he would simply resign, meaning a caretaker government would take his place until an election is held next year.

Which way will it go?

It’s still too close to call. Latest polls gave the No camp a lead of five to eight percentage points, but with many voters – around a third – still undecided. Renzi is hoping that a boost from expat voters will swing it his way.