This article is part of a panorama in which eight analysts from around Europe look at how referendums are used or misused, and how they shape public debate. The series explores the role of referendums throughout Europe: how they drive change, whether progressive or reactionary, and foster common understandings crucial for functioning democracies.

Which tools can give voice to the real will of the people? Existing constitutional systems face this challenge by combining direct and indirect democracy. In many legal orders, elections and referendums represent the ideal combination to achieve such an aim. However, recent developments cast doubt on this.

Italy is a constitutional order based on fundamental rights, the rule of law, and a parliamentary form of government. In recent years, a feeling of being “at the periphery” has become widespread among Italians – finding expression in social and political unease, and feeding populist movements. Moreover, the Covid-19 pandemic has intensified the direct relationship between leader and people. For Italy, this has meant the resurfacing of dangerous memories of the past, rather than being any sign of contemporary democracy. In this light, one may wonder whether referendums could balance such a perception and be genuine vectors of democratic participation. Given that ‘democracy’ is a continuous and complex process rooted in the political, social, and economic participation of citizens, the answer is not simple.

In recent years, a feeling of being “at the periphery” has become widespread among Italians.

After World War II, the Constituent Assembly tasked with writing the constitution for the new republic clearly defined the idea of democracy on which the Italian Constitution is built. Democracy is anchored to a representative system, limiting not only every branch of government, but also the people. For fear of the return of authoritarianism even under a popular guise, the Italian parliamentary form of government leaves only a narrow margin to direct democracy, and referendums may only be held under certain strictly defined circumstances as listed in the Constitution.

Why is Italian popular sovereignty not limitless – at least, in theory? Firstly, the Constituent Assembly feared the return of authoritarian attitudes even under a popular guise. Secondly, it worried that direct democracy could not be reconciled with mechanisms governing the parliamentary form of government (introduced following 20 years of dictatorship). Nowadays, the question is whether domestic history has confirmed these doubts. A significant number of referendums have taken place in Italy since the 1970s. The majority of these have been abrogative referendums, designed to translate progressive change into the country’s legal and institutional framework.

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In one specific case, an abrogative referendum clearly succeeded in giving a voice to civil society, that is – movements fighting for civil rights or just progressive individuals. In 1970, the Italian parliament adopted a statute law by a large majority which introduced divorce proceedings into the legal system. Prior to this, marriages in Italy could only be dissolved by ecclesiastical courts. Immediately afterwards, a group (consisting mainly of Catholics) called for a referendum to repeal the new rules. In the subsequent referendum on divorce that took place in 1974, nearly 60 per cent of Italians voted against repealing the divorce provisions, a result that clearly gave voice to an important part of civil society.

Did this result vindicate the fears of the Constituent Assembly? Given specific lato sensu political conditions, a civil law system (anchored in a parliamentary form of government) may sometimes need referendums to transpose social progress into the legal sphere. Without the 1974 referendum, family law and women’s rights in Italy may have faced a very different story. Nevertheless, other examples show how double-edged the issue may be.

In the early 1990s, in the wake of a significant judicial anti-corruption investigation, people believed that the representative system was not simply corrupt, but also inadequate to ensure genuine democratic government. In 1993, an abrogative referendum proposing to alter the electoral system of the Italian Senate was called. More than 80 per cent of voters approved the changes, but was this a “victory of the people” as in 1974? Of course, the vote succeeded in changing the electoral system into a completely different one (moving from an extremely proportional to a more majoritarian mixed-member system). Nonetheless, it did not simply eliminate existing provisions; it introduced new legal provisions by rewriting the legislative text, and in doing so went far beyond the constitutional architecture regarding direct democracy. Moreover, it did not reduce corruption. On the contrary, it intensified the direct relationship between leaders and people. For a former dictatorship, this is a dangerous memory of the past.

In September 2020, a different sort of referendum was called: a constitutional one. Laws amending the Constitution may be submitted to popular vote when requested by political minorities within three months of their publication. A 2019 constitutional law reducing the number of members of both houses of parliament could enter into force only after such a constitutional referendum had taken place. Nearly 70 per cent of voters approved the reduction in the number of representatives. Italians voted in the hope that the decrease in MPs would increase the “quality” of representation in the future, which had become severely weakened. However, constitutional scholars have cast doubt on whether constitutional amendments can achieve such a goal. The only certain result may be the altering of the equilibrium between voters and representatives, the inner functioning of both houses, and several mechanisms concerning the form of government. Thus, in these circumstances, the power of the referendum represents more an illusion than a decision leading to concrete changes.

Direct democracy must challenge representative democracy when and if it represents a peaceful way to introduce progressive changes into the legal system.

Referendums do give a voice to the people, involving citizens in political decisions. But these examples – the final one in particular – invite us to reflect on the link between referendums and genuine democratic participation in Italy.

Democracy is a continuous and complex process, anchored in the people’s and the individual’s participation in the political, economic, and social organisation of the country. Direct democracy must challenge representative democracy when and if it represents a peaceful way to introduce progressive changes into the legal system. If it becomes the weapon of people feeling pushed to the periphery of the political system, it simply puts the constitutional architecture at risk. In this light, referendums seem to not (always) be a truly inclusive vector of democracy. Is there a solution? Of course, but not one that can easily be achieved in times like the present. Long ago, one of the most enlightened Italian intellectuals, Piero Calamandrei, never stopped recalling that true democracy can only live hand in hand with social rights. According to his perspective, the Italian Constitution represented a ‘promised revolution’: a revolution whose only weapon was social dignity; a dignity able to fully realise each individual’s participation in the organisation of the country. That promised revolution remains incomplete. Yet it seems clear that it is social justice and inclusion, rather than referendums alone, that are the true democratic means of giving the people a sovereign voice.

Democracy Ever After? Perspectives on Power and Representation
Democracy Ever After? Perspectives on Power and Representation

Between the progressive movements fighting for rights and freedoms and the exclusionary politics of the far right, this edition examines the struggle over democracy and representation in Europe today.

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