IT IS NOT often voters have the option to downsize politicians. But on September 20 and 21, the Italians did it – and they seized the opportunity with both hands. By a huge majority of 70% to 30%, they chose in a referendum to reduce the number of lawmakers by more than a third. The lower house (the Chamber of Deputies) will have 400 members, compared to 630, while the upper chamber will have 200 elected senators instead of 315. The reform also capped the number of life senators appointed by the president at five.
The new law will come into force after the next general election, which is not due to take place until 2023, although it may come sooner. This will not affect the generous salaries and benefits of Italian parliamentarians. Nor does it address a more fundamental problem: that the two houses have identical functions. Yet this brings the ratio of voters to lawmakers down to about the same level as in Germany and represents a triumph for the anti-politics, distrust of a governing elite whose members are viewed by many Italians. as pampered, corruptible and virtually impossible to dislodge. Anti-politics was a major reason for the rise of the Five Star maverick movement (M5S), who sponsored the reform.
So another populist advance? Regional elections held at the same time suggested otherwise. First, they showed that Italians care enough about old-fashioned parliamentary democracy to challenge the risks posed by covid-19 and vote in significant numbers. Nowhere was the turnout below 50% and in the Aosta Valley, on the border with France, it was above 70%, impressive in every way for a regional election. Second, in the face of a European resurgence of the virus and the heavy responsibility of wisely investing the vast funds that the EU predicted Italy’s economic recovery, voters opted for continuity.
The center-left Democratic Party (PD), who rules in a coalition including the Five Stars, feared disaster. Seven of Italy’s 20 regions were at stake, four of which were governed by the PD. Polls suggest the party could lose three, including Tuscany, a left-hearted heart since the days of the now defunct Italian Communist Party. In the case, the PDThe governor’s candidate in Tuscany convincingly beat a challenger presented by the far-right Northern League of Matteo Salvini. The only defeat for the PD and its brilliant but non-charismatic leader, Nicola Zingaretti, was in the neighboring Marche region, once considered part of the central “red belt” of Italy. There, the victory went to the Brothers of Italy (FreI), which has its roots in neo-fascism (and which, despite its name, is led by a woman.)
It was the last of many signs that FreI may now be on the verge of recasting the more garish and populist League to take command of the Italian right. It was hardly comforting for Mr. Salvini that the League came first in the Aosta Valley, with nearly 24% of the vote. And he will have been even less applauded by the result in Veneto, which has been a stronghold of the League since its inception. The outgoing governor, Luca Zaia, let off steam at home with 77% of the vote. But his triumph, like that of Vincenzo De Luca of the Democrats, in Campania, the region around Naples, was largely due to his deft handling of the pandemic rather than an obvious sympathy for the League’s harsh messages on immigration. and Europe. Mr De Luca, whose authoritarian manner has earned him the nickname ‘Pol Pot’, has succeeded in the seemingly impossible task of getting the Neapolitans to respect the lockdown by, among other things, threatening to deploy police armed with flamethrowers . Mr Zaia has been praised around the world for containing the virus through coverage tests. The bad news for Mr. Salvini is that as a result, Mr. Zaia is now seen as a potential and imminent successor to him.
Despite their victory in the referendum, the performance of the Five Stars also showed that Italians have become picky about populism. In one region, they got double digits. Worse yet, their result in Liguria, in the north-west. Here the M5S allied with Democrats to back a split candidate, the idea being that this could provide the extra votes to oust a center-right incumbent. Instead, the Allied contender collapsed to a 17-point loss. As Italy enters a crucial phase, which could decide to regain its economic dynamism or sink further into indebted lethargy, the PD will be firmly in the driver’s seat. ■
This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the title “Counter-strike”