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To Transform or Not Transform Italy’s Senate, that is the Question

Italy’s politicians have decided the time has come to be rid of the nation’s upper house of parliament, the senate. Not everyone in Italy is too happy that the senate will cease to exist though. Why do some one to abolish the senate and others do not? Here’s an explanation and some clarification.

Word is going around that Italy wants to abolish its senate, this, however, is not completely true. If the planned changes do occur, Italy’s senate won’t cease to exist. Instead, the new senate will be a body with greatly reduced powers. Italy’s senators will, however, lose their jobs,

Under the proposal made by the Matteo Renzi led government, the new 148 seat senate will be composed of regional governors, other regional politicians, and 21 representatives who will be selected by Italy’s president. Who exactly the 21 representatives will be is not yet clear, but they may be leading businessmen and other key members of Italian society. While the members of the proposed senate would not be elected, many would still be elected representatives, in that Italy’s regional politicians are themselves elected into power. The exception is the 21 members nominated by Italy’s president.

Before looking at the views for and against the transformation of Italy’s upper house, here’s some information on what Italy’s senate is and what it does.

The Composition of Italy’s Senate

Presently, there are 320 senators in Italy’s senate, 5 of which are lifetime senators – the rest are elected. Senators have to be over 40 and can only be elected by Italians over the age of 25. Aside from the age limit, there are no other restrictions on who may or may not be elected to Italy’s senate, though generally, long serving politicians in Italy’s lower house tend to end up with seats in Italy’s senate. Regional presidents, such as former Lombardy region head Roberto Formigoni, can end up as senators too.

At times, the 5 lifetime senators can help swing votes in Italy’s senate in a particular direction. This means that when lifetime senators are appointed, Italy’s politicians often sponsor those who are favourable to their political direction or philosophy.

Italy’s senators enjoy the same immunity from arrest as their lower house colleagues. Pay and benefit levels are generous too.

What is a ‘lifetime’ senator?

Well, if you are familiar with the United Kingdom and its upper house of parliament known as the House of Lords, you will know that the Lords, or peers, are aristocrats some of which have had there titles passed down to them over the years.  These are the hereditary peers. Then there are others who are made Lords or Ladies for their lifetimes. In other words, when the lifetime peers leave this earth, their titles go with them and cannot be inherited by their children. Well, Italy’s lifetime senators are the same. Most are nominated for services to their country. Like the lifetime peers in the United Kingdom, their seats become vacant when they die.

What Does the Senate Do?

Quite simply, it does the same as Italy’s lower house in that it proposes, debates, and passes legislation in parallel with the lower house, otherwise known as the chamber of deputies. The senate can also participate in confidence and budget votes. The transformed senate will not be able to, or that is the proposal.

Italy has something which is known as a perfect bicameral legislature, the only real difference between the two houses is the electoral system which is employed to form them. Whereas lower house members are elected using a national block voting system, Italy’s senators are voted into their seats using a electoral system tied to Italy 20 regions.

How Much Does Italy’s Senate Cost to Run?

Around €550 million a year.

Why Abolish the Senate?

In part, to save money. Abolition, or that should perhaps be, transformation, proponents, who include Italy’s unelected Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, Italy’s President Napolitano and former Italian Prime Minister convict Silvio Berlusconi, also argue that by eliminating Italy’s senate the legislative process will be speeded up. This is true in that at the moment both houses have to agree on the wording of draft legislation before it can become law.

On occasion, bills have bounced back and forth between both houses. This can slow down the law making process. However, if a government holds the majority of seats in both Italy’s senate and the lower house, laws can be passed relatively quickly.

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Once a draft law has been approved by both of Italy’s houses of parliament, it is signed into force by Italy’s president who can send drafts back to Italy’s parliament in the event he or she considers the proposed law unconstitutional. However, Italy’s president can only send draft laws back to Italy parliament once and is then obliged to sign the law into power the next time it ends up on his or her desk – provided the draft legislation has not changed.

This, of course, means that with a strong enough majority Italy’s parliament can force though unconstitutional laws – and this has happened. One example is Italy’s current electoral law, part of which has been declared unconstitutional by Italy’s constitutional court. The process of finding laws unconstitutional can take years though, as in the case of Italy’s electoral law which was only found to be unconstitutional recently. The law itself came into being in December 2005.

Italy’s current political system means that the nation can be left unhealthy from a democratic view point for rather longer than is perhaps safe. The situation may worsen after the senate is reformed.

With a single, all-powerful, house of parliament, inappropriate or undemocratic laws could be passed much more rapidly than today.

The Anti-Abolitionist Movement

Or rather, anti-transformation movement. Those who don’t want senate reform fear that democracy will be severely threatened if Italy’s upper house loses its power.

They do have a point, in that with the senate not participating in the legislative process, laws of dubious constitutionality could be passed much more quickly. As a result, Italy, it is argued by the anti-abolitionists/transformationists, risks becoming an authoritarian state.

Stefano Rodotà, a respected Italian academic and politician, is one of many anti-abolitionists who strongly oppose the transformation of Italy’s senate on the grounds that Italy risks authoritarianism. Curiously, Mr Rodotà did once propose that Italy adopt political system which employed one single house of parliament. He’s changed his mind now though. Others who don’t want the see Italy’s senate go are Beppe Grillo and, apparently, historian Paul Ginsborg.

I asked Italy based political scientist James Walston about the abolition of Italy’s senate and his comment was that it could be very dangerous for democracy in Italy. Italy, it has to be said, has its own very particular brand of democracy which is not overly democratic at the best of times. A botched transformation could severely weaken democracy in Italy. Italy’s Prime Minister is very keen on pushing through the senate reform as quickly as possible and this increases the risk of errors.

Another concern is that Silvio Berlusconi is keen for this reform to go ahead. Berlusconi, a fan of Benito Mussolini, wants Italian prime ministers to have greater, almost dictatorial, powers. If Berlusconi had had such powers, he would have used them to end his legal woes. Berlusconi’s successors could do the same either to protect themselves or their associates. The danger of the senate reform proposals is that the dictator scenario could become reality.

How Could Italy Reduce the Risk to Democracy?

This is not an easy question to answer. In Italy, parliamentary power is supreme, so no other institutional body can tell it what to do. The only check which exists is that of whether the acts of Italy’s parliament are constitutional. However, challenges to the constitutionality of legislation can only be made after laws have come into force. Italy’s government can tinker with Italy’s constitution to render certain changes constitutional. Indeed, the senate transformation will require Italy to change its constitution – a process which can be time consuming.

What could be done to prevent unconstitutional laws from being passed is to request Italy’s constitutional court review all draft laws before they are written into Italy’s law books. While the constitutional court would not be allowed to prevent laws from being passed, it could recommend that changes are made to laws to render them constitutional. This would also save time, and money, in the long term and would serve to protect democracy in Italy. Will it happen? Probably not.

Will the Senate Transformation Occur?

It is probable that the senate reforms will happen, though exactly what form the new senate will take is still an unknown.

Italy’s political parties will only agree to the reform once they feel the changes work well for them. In addition to this, by voting for change, Italy’s senators will be doing themselves out of their well-paid, generously pensioned, jobs. Would you be happy to sack yourself? Probably not.

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