A Long Quest in Vain: Institutional
Reforms in Italy
MARTIN BULL and GIANFRANCO PASQUINO
The perceived need for institutional and constitutional reform has figured prominently
in the Italian political debate over the past three decades, yet the outcome has been
characterised by continual failure. The most recent failure – the rejection of the centreright’s
proposed root and branch overhaul of the Constitution in a referendum held in
June 2006 – offers a valuable prism through which to analyse the main institutional
deficiencies (as apparently perceived by the political class) of the Italian political
system, and the attempt to overcome them in the past 15 years: executive–legislative
relations (and notably the powers of the Prime Minister and bicameralism), devolution,
and (formally beyond the Constitution but inseparable from its functioning) the
electoral system. The decisive rejection of the centre-right’s proposals in 2006 increases
the dilemma confronting the Italian political system in its quest to secure constitutional
reform by precluding certain types and methods of reform while failing to quash
aspirations for its achievement amongst politicians and the public.
Of all the issues that have been regarded as necessary to stabilising Italian
politics (if not bringing to a close the so-called ‘transition’), following the
dramatic upheaval of the 1990s, none has been more important than
constitutional and institutional reforms. Yet, the decisive rejection by
referendum in June 2006 of a package of proposals designed by the centreright
coalition that would have rewritten most of Part II of the Italian
Constitution symbolises the unqualified failure of the political class over a
30-year period to achieve constitutional reform (whilst not overlooking
electoral reform which is out of the Constitution). This is not to suggest that
Italian institutions remain totally unreformed or unchanged; on the
contrary, the principal institutions have all experienced change and
piecemeal reform, notably in the past 15 years (see Bull 2004: 553–60; Bull
and Newell 2005: ch. 7; Vassallo 2007). However, these changes have never
been regarded as sufficient to meet the needs of Italian democracy.
Correspondence Address: [email protected]; [email protected]
West European Politics,
Vol. 30, No. 4, 670 – 691, September 2007
ISSN 0140-2382 Print/1743-9655 Online ª 2007 Taylor & Francis
The institutional reform debate has a long history, dating back to 1976
when Bettino Craxi, the secretary of the Italian Socialist Party (PSI)
launched the idea of a Grande Riforma (root and branch instead of gradual
reform of the Constitution). Since then, there have been no fewer than four
attempts at root and branch reform of the Constitution: the Bozzi
Commission (1983–85), the De Mita/Iotti Commission (1992–94), the
Bicameral Commission or Bicamerale (1997–98) and, finally, the House of
Freedoms’ proposed constitutional reform, passed by parliament in
November 2005 and reduced to ashes by a referendum the following year.
The last two reform attempts were influenced by the upheaval in Italian party
politics that occurred in the early 1990s. While, starting from Craxi, there has
been an apparent widespread belief that the root of Italy’s problems lie in its
institutional framework and that institutional engineering is therefore the
solution, the electoral reform of 1993 made that need more imperative. In
that year, a conspicuous majority of Italians voted to repeal large portions of
the proportional electoral law and parliament was obliged subsequently to
pass a mixed (three-quarters plurality, one-quarter proportional) electoral
law. There were high expectations that this reform, if accompanied by
significant institutional/constitutional reforms, would lay the foundations
for a better functioning political system. Indeed, as the bipolarising impact of
the new electoral law became apparent (with the emergence of two coalitions
and then candidates for the office of Prime Minister), the argument subtly
shifted to the need to update or modernise institutions in order to adapt them
to the new majoritarian form of politics and a putative new political class.
What appeared to be unchanging was the approach of that political class
(through its parties) to the question of institutional reforms: the reforms
proposed were generally dictated by the needs of the parties themselves, or at
least they were not willing to tolerate reforms which might undermine their
own power bases. The levels of disagreement this consistently produced
ensured the failure of successive attempts at reform, and led, in 2004, to the
centre-right government attempting to overhaul the Constitution on the
strength of its majority.
The consequence has been that institutions have been, and are, under
stress. The current institutional arrangements and political rules of the game
are not widely accepted; indeed, they have been under challenge on several
fronts. The widespread consensus that some measure of reform is needed,
when combined with the persistent failure to achieve this, undermines the
legitimacy of those institutional arrangements. The Italian Constitution has
become an instrument of political battle. No resolution of this dilemma
appears on the horizon because of a combination of three elements: first,
most of the old actors and their (obsolete) political and institutional beliefs
are still thriving; second, no authentic blueprint for systemic institutional
reforms has yet been formulated; and, third, no decisive electoral victory by
a coalition with such a blueprint for reform has been secured (as will be
argued below, Berlusconi’s 2001 victory was followed by a constitutional
Institutional Reforms in Italy 671
design that was confused and represented the outcome less of a shared vision
for a constitution than of cross-party deals and blackmailing).
This article analyses the key trends and developments in the institutional
reform debate of the past decade, with a particular focus on the most recent
attempt to achieve a root-and-branch overhaul of the Constitution and a new
electoral law. The first section provides a summary of the broader context of
the institutional reform debate. The next three sections analyse the three key
areas of reform or attempted reform in the past 15 years, with a focus on the
centre-right’s reforms of 2005: the electoral law, executive and legislative
power, and devolution (or federalism). There follows an analysis of the
failure of the centre-right to achieve these reforms (save the electoral reform)
through their rejection in the referendum of June 2006. The concluding
section argues that this most recent failure increases the dilemma confronting
the Italian political system in its quest to secure institutional reform.
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