The prime minister came to office in 2014 as a man of change, but what exactly has he achieved?
When Matteo Renzi ousted his Partito Democratico (PD) colleague Enrico Letta in February 2014 to become Italy’s youngest prime minister aged 39, no one was in any doubt that he was a man of change. As Florence mayor he had pushed hard for an overhaul of his party leadership, scrapping the “old guard” in favour of the new generation. Now, as head of government, he looked hell bent on overhauling much of Italy itself, with a sweeping reform programme involving Italy’s bicameral parliamentary system, electoral law, public administration, schools, justice system, labour market and much more. Nor did his Arrivo, arrivo! (I’m coming, I’m coming!) tweet sent before he had even been sworn in as prime minister leave any room for doubt as to his intended pace: this was not only a man of change, but he was clearly in a hurry to get on with the job.
Renzi's reform agenda
Now, nearly two years into government, what exactly has Renzi achieved? Ostensibly a huge amount. However, the intricacies of Italy’s legislative system and the sustained communications campaign making heavy use of social media that has accompanied government and parliamentary activity over the last 22 months have served to mystify the changes, making it difficult for onlookers to follow developments and – more importantly – to grasp what is at stake.
Renzi’s reform agenda rests on two interconnecting pillars: modification of Italy’s post-war constitution to create an indirectly elected senate of local and regional representatives with limited law-making powers; and a new electoral law, made necessary after the 2005 Porcellum (pig-sty) law was declared unconstitutional in 2013.
These projects, the result of a controversial January 2014 agreement between Renzi and ex-prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, leader of the centre-right Forza Italia (FI) party, aimed to give the country a more efficient parliament and an executive with a clear mandate to govern for a full five-year term.
The Italicum or electoral reform
The new Italicum electoral law won definitive approval from the chamber of deputies in May 2015, but not without splitting the PD after the government decided to put it to a confidence vote*. The opposition parties – including FI, which had fallen out with Renzi over the election of Sergio Mattarella as president of the republic earlier in the year – left the hall in protest.
The Italicum introduces a two-round system of voting for the 630-member chamber of deputies based on proportional representation with a bonus of parliamentary seats for the winning party (not coalition). Parties polling less than three per cent are excluded from parliament. The law also reintroduces a preference vote for all candidates except the one heading the party list.
Centre-left opposition centred on concerns that the Italicum as it stands would tip the balance of power away from parliament in favour of the executive and a powerful prime minister. Opposition parties instead feared for their own prospects for election to government given the 40 per cent threshold for obtaining bonus seats at the first round. And small parties feared not getting any representation at all.
These concerns threw a spanner in the works of the constitutional reform, which had already cleared two readings in parliament and was set to return to the senate for its third reading in September**.
The bill due to arrive in the upper house reduced the present 315 members elected directly on a regional basis (plus a variable number of life senators) into a body of 95 representatives chosen by regional councils from among their own members and local mayors, plus five senators appointed by the president of the republic.
However, in light of the Italicum numerous senators who had previously voted in favour of the reform now felt that a directly elected senate was needed to offset the new imbalance of power between parliament and the executive.
Eventually a compromise was reached to allow regional representatives to be selected “in conformity” with the choices made by voters on electoral lists in regional elections. At the same time, there has been talk of “correcting” the Italicum to give the bonus of seats in the chamber of deputies to the winning coalition, rather than party.
Under the constitutional reform the lower house will retain full law-making powers, while the senate will be able to legislate only in matters concerning the constitution, electoral law, the regions and the European Union. Critically, its vote of confidence will not be needed by the executive in order to govern. The bill also provides for the centralisation of certain powers previously shared between the state and the regions and the devolution of others to the regions providing their budgets are in order.
The measure was adopted by the senate on 13 October and is now once again before the chamber of deputies for its fourth reading, with the final vote set for 11 January. If the bill is not subject to further changes in the lower house it will go back to the senate for a fifth reading and then return to the chamber of deputies for its final reading in the spring. Renzi has also said it will be put to a confirmative referendum later in the year before taking effect from the next elections to parliament.
Jobs Act and education
Meanwhile the prime minister has pushed through several other key reforms, including the controversial 2014 Jobs Act to create greater flexibility in the Italian labour market and bring down high unemployment. This centred on the introduction of a new open-ended employment contract linking protection measures to time spent in the job. Companies hiring staff or putting them on permanent contracts in 2015 were exempted from social security contributions for three years. The act also softened strict labour laws dating back to 1970 and extended services to the unemployed.
The most recent employment data show a positive trend despite slow economic growth, suggesting that the Jobs Act has had an immediate effect. However, much will now depend on the economic recovery and whether the incentives for new steady hires become permanent. The economy minister Pier Carlo Padoan has said they “won’t last in eternity” and in the 2016 budget currently before parliament they have already been scaled down.
Another cornerstone of Renzi’s reform programme is the 2015 Good School law to improve the quality of state education by increasing autonomy in school governance and investing in teacher training among other things.
Public administration, justice and culture
Then there is the 2015 reform of public administration to ensure efficiency, transparency and quality of services. However many of the provisions, including new rules for senior bureaucrats and the possibility of layoffs, still have to be enacted.
There has also been a rash of minor reforms including reorganisation of the national cultural heritage and the appointment of independent directors to 20 of the country’s top museums. The first were announced in August and seven were foreigners.
In addition, the government has taken the first steps in overhauling the country’s slow-moving justice system by introducing measures to reduce the backlog of civil cases and civil liability for civil judges.
Speeding up divorce
Renzi has also spearheaded new rules for so-called “quickie” divorce (in force since May) and is pushing hard for the introduction civil unions (not marriage) and stepchild adoption (the right of one partner to adopt the other’s child) for same-sex couples, despite strong opposition from the Vatican. The provisions have split the government coalition and at the time of writing the bill was stuck at its first reading in the senate, despite pressure from the prime minister to seal a deal by the end of the year.
Then there is the push to reform state broadcaster RAI. In the absence of serious debate about the vocation of public-service broadcasting in Italy in the 21st century, the bill – now at its third reading in the senate – boils down to a reform of governance. There would be a leaner board of directors, nominated mostly by government or parliament, and beefed-up powers for the director-general (now called managing director). And who gets to choose the managing director? Why, the prime minister (through the treasury), of course.
Votes of confidence
* At the time of writing in early November the Renzi government had used the confidence vote mechanism 43 times since taking office, including to push through many of its reforms. By comparison, the previous Letta government used the mechanism ten times during its ten-month term, the 2011-2013 technocrat government of Mario Monti 38 times, the 2008-2011 Berlusconi government 39 times and the 2006-2008 government of Romano Prodi 22 times (Sources: www.camera.it, www.senato.it).
** Article 138 of the constitution provides that any constitutional amendment must be adopted by both houses of parliament twice in identical form and with an interval of no less than three months between the votes in the same house. It must be approved by an absolute majority on the second reading in each house in order to pass into law.
This article was first published in the December edition of the magazine Wanted in Rome now on sale on newsstands in Rome.
For more from Laura Clarke see her website.