From now until spring, Italian politics will have three intertwined campaigns to excite the minds and submerge the media. The first two are the general election for a new parliament and government (likely date 9 April) and then the election by the new parliament of a successor to President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi in May. These have both been on the calendar for many years. Now there is a third, a referendum to confirm or reject the constitutional amendment passed in mid-November, provided that 500,000 eligible voters, a fifth of either chamber of Parliament or five out of the 20 regional councils request it within the next three months, which seems likely. The measure will very likely be turned down in the referendum so that the whole reform process will have to start again.

The amendment is the first major modification since the constitution was passed in 1947. It transforms the powers of both president and prime minister, it changes the size and composition of both houses of parliament and, most controversially, it transfers extensive powers from central government to Italys 20 regions.

Considering how easy it is to change Italys constitution, at least in theory, it is surprising that it has taken so long to get this far. All that is needed is to pass the proposal twice through both houses of parliament with at least three months between the two passages. If, as in this case, the second majority is less than two thirds, then the proposal may be put to a referendum. Until 2001, the only amendments to the constitution were minor and uncontroversial, such as changing the senates mandate from seven to five years.

The discussion on prime ministerial powers and the relationship between the regions and central government began 30 years ago; nothing solid was achieved in the first two decades, then in the 1990s a bicameral commission sat for several years and was unable to agree on reform. The centre-left government of the time managed to pass an amendment in 2001 that gave greater powers to the regions and made Italy nominally a federal republic, but in practice this amendment merely complicated the game of who is responsible for what in government.

The present reforms most controversial element is the so-called devolution (written in English) to distinguish it from the centre-lefts reform which was federalista, and to suggest an affinity with devolution in the United Kingdom.

The regions will have exclusive competence for the provision and organisation of the health service and education, along with the power to introduce region-specific educational programmes. There will also be regional police forces. In contrast, central government will look after issues of national interest and will be able to annul regional laws through a vote in parliament.

As part of the devolution package, the regional assemblies will elect the senate (today senators are directly elected by the people). The senate will be able to comment on laws of national interest and amend them, but the chamber of deputies will always have the last word (today both houses have the same power and bills must be passed identically in both to become law). The numbers in both houses of parliament will be reduced; in the senate from 315 to 252 and in the chamber from 630 to 518.

Under the terms of the amendment the way nominations are made to the constitutional court will also change slightly; four judges will be nominated by the president of the republic (five today), four by the judiciary (five today), four by the senate and three by the chamber of deputies (five from both houses today).

More significant is the change in the prime ministers role. The officially nominated candidate of the winning coalition in a general election becomes prime minister and no longer needs a vote of confidence for his government and its programme from parliament. He determines rather than directs government policy and, most importantly, he has the power to appoint and dismiss ministers and dissolve parliament (at present these powers are held by the president of the republic).

If the reforms are ratified by a referendum, the devolution elements regarding the regions would be applied straight away while the others would be implemented over ten years.

Technically many constitutionalists reckon the reform would produce nightmarish conflicts between Rome and the regions. Since 2001 the constitutional court has already had to deal with dozens of appeals from the regions or the ministries over who has the right to do what. Devolution is really likely to complicate matters. The unknown cost of the reform and the possibility of ballooning bureaucracies are also a concern.

Political opponents, though, are clear and strong. They see the reform as a payback from the prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, for the loyalty of his small government partner, the Lega Nord, led by Umberto Bossi, and as a way of keeping money in the north. The rest of the country is nervous. The day after the senate vote, the president of the Italian bishops conference, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, expressed his misgivings, saying that the amendment risks undermining national solidarity. Historically the Vatican did everything it could in the 19th century to prevent Italian unity, but for most of the 20th century it staunchly defended the country from separatist tendencies. On most other issues the Church has supported the centre-right coalition, so the government is playing down Ruinis position. However, the head of the industrialists association, Confindustria, Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, has also been critical, saying that we risk higher costs and lower efficiency.

All three of the surviving members of the 1947 constituent assembly (Giulio Andreotti, Oscar Luigi Scalfaro and Emilio Colombo) voted against the amendment, as did the Sicilian political scientist, Domenico Fisichella, who resigned from his party Alleanza Nazionale over the amendment

The likelihood is that in less than a year the reform will be in the dustbin of history but, in the meantime, Italy will have a crash course in federalism and constitutional engineering.