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Referendums in Northern Italy: Electoral Test Run or Trigger for Constitutional Change?

Published: 26 October 2017
Author: Patrick Utz

The 2017 referendums in the northern Italian regions of Lombardy and Veneto may have received less international attention than events in Catalonia, says Patrick Utz, but they will have implications for the future of Lega Nord, Italian territorial politics and the future of austerity.

The recent vote by over five million Italians for more autonomy in referendums held on 22 October 2017 in the Northern regions of Lombardy and Veneto received nothing like the coverage of the independence poll held in Catalonia a few weeks earlier. In both regions, over 95% of those who turned out to vote backed calls for more regional competences, with turnouts of 38.2% (Lombardy) and 57.2% (Veneto) respectively.
Unlike the contentious poll in Catalonia earlier this month, the Italian plebiscites were both in line with the central state’s constitution and have previously been negotiated with the central government. The consent of the authorities in Rome (as opposed to those in Madrid in the Catalan question) can easily be explained by two factors.
Firstly, the Lombardy and Veneto referendums are only consultative, and per se entail no legal consequences whatsoever. Secondly, the questions posed to the respective electorates (they slightly differed between the two regions) were so vaguely defined that it is even hard to translate the outcomes into a clear political mandate.
So what were the referendums about in the first place? Were they mere test runs by Italy’s Northern regionalists for the 2018 general elections? Or does anyone seriously believe that the votes can improve the quality of sub-state administration in Italy’s prosperous North?
Neither of these interpretations can be dismissed outright. Concerning the latter point, the current referendums are yet another building block in a series of attempts to restructure Italy’s internal territorial relations over the last two decades. These recurrent efforts for territorial reform stem from three structural deficiencies. 
Firstly, Italy’s 1948 Constitution lays the foundation for an asymmetric system of territorial management. Five peripheral regions – Sicily, Sardinia, Val d’Aosta, Trentino-Alto Adige/South Tyrol and Friuli-Venezia Giulia – are constitutionally granted special statutes and, in some cases, extensive fiscal autonomy. The 15 ‘ordinary regions’,
in turn, have only gradually assumed limited competences since the 1970s, and enviously observe the developments in the ‘special regions’. 
Secondly, Italy’s still very pronounced North-South divide, resulting from the contrasts between the relatively underdeveloped Mezzogiorno in the South and the highly dynamic economies in the Centre and the North, provides another source of regional disparities.
And thirdly, the lack of regional representation at the centre and the inefficiency of the Italian bicameral parliamentary system also translate into periodical claims for constitutional reform.
In the early 2000s, both the centre-right and the centre-left considered decentralization to be the solution to these structural problems. This culminated in the 2001 constitutional reform that significantly strengthened the ordinary regions, but fell short of corresponding reforms at the central level (e.g. the reform of the Senate). Attempts for further devolution failed in 2006, due to a lack of popular support. Since the Euro-crisis and the austerity measures that Italy has been implementing in response to it, however, the direction of territorial politics in Italy has been reversed. Regional competences have been hollowed out through tough budgetary constraints, and the proposed 2016 constitutional reform would have curtailed the legislative leeway of the ordinary regions in an even more radical way.
The rejection of these reforms in December last year, and the referendums in Veneto and Lombardy can be seen as setting Italy’s course on territorial politics back towards more decentralization and more (fiscal) responsibilities for the regions. Even if last week’s plebiscites have only given the respective regional authorities a (legally non-binding) mandate to ‘request’ new competences from the central state, it has brought the issue of decentralization back onto the agenda of Italian politics.
Having said this, the process of decentralization can only be fully understood against the backdrop of party politics in Italy. Since the 1990s, Veneto and Lombardy are strongholds of the populist right and regionalist Lega Nord. It was the Lega governors of the two regions who initiated the respective plebiscites and emerged as the clear victors at the polls. In next year’s general election, the new momentum that the Lega has gained through these events can translate into two possible scenarios. Either the Lega makes the most out of its recent success and strengthens its position within Italy’s centre-right block (especially against Mr Berlusconi’s Forza Italia); or the autonomist drive in the North jeopardizes the party leadership’s attempts to expand the party’s support base to the South, which might result in internal ruptures and a weakening of the party.
Independently of the Lega’s strategies and electoral fortunes, however, Italy’s regional question will be high on the next government’s agenda. The votes in Lombardy and Veneto have indicated in which direction future territorial change is likely to go. The days of austerity-inspired centralism seem to be over. 

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