First, consider the reform on its merits. Renzi’s plan is complicated, and he hasn’t explained it well, yet the need for change is clear. For years, Italy has been plagued by chronic inability to pursue a sustained and coherent program of policy. The constitutional changes would do something to address that, mainly by narrowing the role of the Senate (currently co-equal with the Chamber of Deputies) and moving some competences from regional authorities to the center. The net effect would be to give the central government more power.
Critics say this shift goes too far. Especially when considered alongside recent electoral-law changes, it’s argued, the reform would undermine essential checks and balances. By Italian standards it does look radical, but not in comparison with other countries. The fully bicameral system Italy uses at present is the anomaly; elsewhere in Europe, it’s typical for the second chamber to have a subsidiary role. The charge that the executive would have untrammeled power if the reform goes ahead is wrong. The new arrangements will be somewhat more like Britain’s and Germany’s -- hardly anti-democratic.
What about the case for Renzi? He was wrong to make the referendum a confidence vote (a position he’s lately softened). Many voters, if recent polls are any guide, resent being pressured that way. Yet as a political moderate and a credible economic reformer, he’s still the country’s best bet.
Europe’s Next Unnerving Referendum
The most plausible short-run alternative is unappealing: another caretaker government with no real mandate. The worst is scary: elections that could put the populist Five Star Movement led by Beppe Grillo in power. Grillo has called for the renationalization of Italian banks, Italy’s departure from the euro system, and assorted other anti-capitalist initiatives. Not exactly what Italy or Europe need.
In one way, admittedly, the prospect of Grillo’s movement is an argument against Renzi’s constitutional reforms. If the populist insurgency ever came to power, the system’s paralyzing checks and balances would be valuable. Even though a no vote would be a win for Grillo, therefore, it might seem safer to keep the system that would stifle him. One can see the dilemma -- but remember that dysfunctional politics is the reason Grillo has come this far. The best cure for reckless populism is better government, and endless paralysis is an unworthy ambition for an economy that could be one of the most vibrant in Europe.
Renzi’s popularity has faded, and his referendum tactics haven’t helped. Sadly, there’s every chance he’ll be defeated on Sunday. If Italians are wise, they won’t let that happen.
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