In the good old days, the referendum used to be a political tool in the strict sense of the word. Back then, ‘yes’ or ‘no’ moved civil consciences and the result of the polls changed the course of history and had an impact on a country’s norms. Consultations such as the ones on divorce or abortion – to name only the historic cases that refer to Marco Pannella, the Italian politician who bound his political story to this constitutional institution more than anyone else – contributed to curve the linearity of Italian history. For better or for worse. Pannella, who is currently celebrated by everyone, was the one who transformed that cornerstone of democracy into a milestone on the path, often uneven, which biunivocally leads from the palaces of power to the citizens and back around.
Is this still the case at present? What is left of that period? Little, perhaps nothing at all, considering that from being a tool in favor of the citizens the referendum has transformed into a means used by the power to go against the citizens. This reversal of factors is likely to determine a serious weak point in the political system, as we know it today. The issue might become central during the consultation that will take place in Italy in October, calibrated on the constitutional reforms sought by the government. Will citizens truly be the ones who decide? Or maybe they will be asked merely to ratify a choice made above their heads, turning the referendum into a kind of plebiscitary trial? There are plenty of risk elements there.
Today and still so? What is left of that season? Little, if at all, since the referendum in favor of the citizen tool has become a means used by the power to go against the city. Reversal of factors that determine the risk of deep weak point in the political system, as we know it. And the issue is likely to become central during the consultation of October calibrated on constitutional reforms sought by the government. Really will be the citizens to decide or is there a risk that you ask them only to ratify a choice made above their heads, turning the referendum into a kind of plebiscitary trial? The risk elements are all there.
The number of referenda suggested by the governments and political parties is increasing dramatically: the European Constitution, Turkey’s entrance inro the EU, even an inquiry about blocking any further expansion of the EU. Yet, it does not mean that democracy is growing. The calling of a referendum must be based on very limited reasons and when these criteria are not met, there is an actual abuse of power. Western democracies delegate decision-making power to a limited number of representatives, whose function is mainly to decide on behalf of the represented. The turnout at the polls is decreasing: if people are not inclined to vote when at stake there are four or five years of decision-making power, we must be very careful with voting for one question or another. Decisions should be taken by those who are most qualified to do so. For this reason, both on national and European levels, decisions relating to farms are up to agriculture ministers, and those concerning the roads are up to transport ministers.
At the same time, the people must make decisions only if the people itself has deeper knowledge of a given question. It is essential, in fact, for people not only to know all the details, but also to be able to count on a careful use of these details, without taking decisions based on irrelevant opinions. For instance, are Italians knowledgeable about the scope of the constitutional reforms passed by the parliament and wanted by the government? Neither those in favor nor those against have a Pannella among them, able to conduct information campaigns worth the name. We switch from one slogan and conventional signal to another, with no analysis at all. Basically, voters have not been provided with the tools needed to decrypt the coded languages.
Long story short, why do the politicians propose a referendum? Is it because it concerns questions of utter importance for the people, which only the people knows perfectly, whereas the leaders do not know the answer yet? In the case of the Italian vote on constitutional reforms, the answer is clearly negative. The opinions of the government and of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi are well known and, obviously, the outcome of a referendum would be easily predictable. The chief executive is far from looking like the kind of magnanimous leader who gives people the impression he is not able to take decisions independently; he wants to use the people as a political weapon, knowing that its opinion will coincide with his. Therefore, the abuse of the referendum produces the opposite effect; it makes politicians less accountable to each other, ready to wash their hands from decisions that might prove unpopular, shift the responsibility and say: “that’s not what I think; it is the opinion of my people.” When you put forward a referendum, very often, the outcome is already known and they leave us alone to dirty your hands while the politicians shrug their shoulders and avoid all responsibility.