Direct Democracy in Italy

Direct democracy may not always be the best—or paradoxically even the most democratic—form of government, but sometimes it’s a great breath of fresh air. On June 12–13 Italians voted “yes” on four referendums in a resounding defeat for the Berlusconi government. It came just two weeks after the center-right was roundly voted down in municipal elections across Italy, and was a blow that even some of Berlusconi’s own colleagues think the prime minister cannot survive. But it was more than that. This was a vote that went far beyond parochial Italian politics: a vote in which citizens had their say on how to manage natural resources and energy policy, a vote against the neoliberal axiom that “private is better,” against industry lobbies and powerful insiders with euro signs in their eyes, against the view that some of us are more equal than others.

Unlike those heated propositions on state and local taxes so familiar to Americans, these were national referendums on matters that all but define the term “public interest.” Two of them affirmed the principle that water is a collective, public good and may not be privatized or subject to automatic profit-making. A third said no to nuclear energy, a pilaster of the Berlusconi government energy policy even after the Fukushima nightmare in Japan. The last referendum abolished the special privilege the prime minister had granted himself and members of his cabinet to delay criminal trials by claiming loosely defined “legitimate impediments,” i.e., government and political duties. The legitimate impediment had already been partially struck down by the Constitutional Court. But apparently the voters felt it was important to assert that all Italians, even members of the government, should be equal before the law, just as the Constitution stipulates.

The vote was a triumph for word of mouth, above all. In order for a referendum to be valid in Italy, 50 percent plus one of eligible voters must go to the polls. And the government did everything to block that quorum. Berlusconi and his Northern League ally Umberto Bossi announced they didn’t intend to vote, reckoning the quorum would never be reached if their followers stayed home. The referendums were slated for a separate, third, poll date following the two-stage municipal elections in May, never mind the huge extra cost and the inconvenience for many of having to go to the polls three times in a month. Berlusconi’s Mediaset TV channels and the government-loyal main public TV channel RAI-1 gave very poor coverage to the upcoming vote, the latter actually announcing the wrong election dates during one news program. (To add insult to injury, the RAI-2 channel, controlled in part by the Northern League, also made the same “mistake” during one of its news reports.) Numbingly dull public service announcements—in dense bureaucratese “with an information content close to zero,” in the words of distinguished legal expert Stefano Rodotà—seemed designed to make the issues inscrutable.

Never mind. The resourceful referendum promoters found inventive ways to get their message across. During the Italian Cup soccer final, Greenpeace suspended a giant yellow and black “Stop Nuclear” banner in the stadium, a message visible on live TV for more than a minute and much seen in subsequent coverage. Scores of appearances by performers around Italy, impromptu concerts, street theater, nude runs, you name it, helped publicize the referendums. On Facebook, you could book a free, volunteer-driven “taxi” to the polls. Bars and restaurants offered discounts to all who had been to vote and could show the poll stamp on their voting certificate. Referendum voters could even get a half-price tattoo at one tattoo parlor in Bologna.

It worked: 57 percent of eligible voters went to the polls (that’s right, about the same as in many recent US presidential elections). And needless to say, given the government’s “stay home” campaign, each referendum got 94–95 percent of yes votes. But not everyone on the center-right stayed home. The Futuro e Libertà forces headed by Gianfranco Fini and a number of Northern Leaguers, among them Veneto governor Luca Zaia, went to vote—against the government on some if not all issues. Catholic voices from the Italian Bishops’ Conference to the news magazine Famiglia Cristiana also supported the vote, particularly on the water issue.

Certainly the government’s most stinging defeat came with the vote on nuclear power. In the days after the disaster in Japan, Berlusconi had insisted he would plow ahead with his plan to buy technology from France to build new nuclear power plants, saying the evident public revulsion was just “an emotional reaction.” When it became clear this was less a wave than a tsunami of emotion, the government quickly suspended the nuclear program, hoping to thus invalidate the referendum. (In a revealing aside to French President Sarkozy in April, Berlusconi told him not to worry, that the moratorium meant that “after a year or two we can go back to talking about it with a more manageable public opinion not influenced by Fukushima.”) In May, in the very days when Germany and Switzerland were announcing they would wind down their nuclear programs, Berlusconi—spurred by who knows what interests—was sneaking a clause into an unrelated bill that would allow Italy’s suspended nuclear program to be revived. Despite two appeals to Italy’s high courts, however, the government was unable to block the vote against nuclear power.

“That you have referendums like this that give citizens a chance to express their views on vital issues shows that Italy is ahead of other countries when it comes to direct democracy,” said French sociologist Alain Caillé in a recent interview. That was a bold claim, in a country famous today for being a backwater of democracy under Berlusconi. And yet, as in so many other matters besides democracy, Italy is somehow both a backwater and a forefront.

The direct vote has an illustrious history in this country, where in 1946 a solemn referendum (in which women voted for the first time) abolished the monarchy that had ruled Italy since 1861 and established a republic. A historic vote in 1974 roundly rejected a Catholic-sponsored referendum that would have struck down the new law permitting divorce. Since 1997, however, the voters have been called to the polls six times for numerous referendums, and a quorum has never been reached.

But this time, the issues caught fire. Verona-based missionary and activist Padre Alex Zanotelli, the man behind the referendum drive leading to Italy’s far-sighted decision that water must belong to “the commons” and be managed in the interests of all, was inspired by a similar, path-breaking referendum in Uruguay in 2004, as well as by a 2008 constitutional amendment in Bolivia establishing water as a fundamental human right (thus progress traveled from south to north). Meanwhile, experience in Italy with some rapacious private water companies—which took profits while making no investments in a system of pipelines so decrepit that nearly 50 percent of pumped water can go to waste—had persuaded most Italians that privatization was a mistake. But the issue went even deeper. Referendum number two stated that investors in the water system would not be guaranteed any profit. There was no way the message could be clearer: Italians no longer accept the Thatcherite view that all things are better managed by the private sector. There is such a thing as society—and some resources belong to us all.

After the center-right defeat in the May municipal elections, columnist Michele Serra wrote that “the Eighties, the longest decade in world history, is finally over. The politics of stage makeup and face-lifts…of escorts…of fake-fun hedonism and vulgar ignorance that pretends to be popular wisdom, is finished.”

The decade of neoliberalism, he might have added. Could benighted Italy’s decisive vote in these referendums be a harbinger of better choices for us all?

Frederika Randall for The Nation