Referendums

   Article 75 of the 1948 Constitution permits the electorate to repeal all or part of a law (or a decree that has the force of law) by popular referendum, though not to write new legislation, which is the explicit function of Parliament. Only international treaties, amnesties or pardons, and all fiscal and budget legislation cannot be abrogated in this way. Areferendum can only be called if five regional governments or 500,000 legal adults petition for it. It must also be approved by the Constitutional Court and may not coincide with a general election. On three occasions (in 1972, 1976, and 1987), Italian governments engineered elections to postpone referendums on divorce, abortion, and nuclear power, though all three were eventually held. To pass, a majority of all eligible voters must vote, and a simple majority must back the wording of the referendum’s sponsors. The first referendums were on the divisive social issues of divorce (12–13 May 1974) and abortion (17–18 May 1981). On both issues, there were a huge turnout (80 percent) and clear decisions in favor of the existing laws.
   Since 1981 referendums have become a characteristic feature of the Italian political system; apart from Switzerland, no other country relies on popular plebiscites as much. Among other issues, referendums have been held on reinstating wage-indexing (1985), abolishing the nuclear power program (1987), and banning hunting and the use of pesticides (1990). Only the last of these failed to meet the 50-percent participation requirement. The culmination of this growing use of the referendum was the campaign for electoral reform led by Mario Segni between 1988 and 1993. The referendums of June 1991 (on preference voting) and April 1993 (on the repeal of proportional representation in elections to the Senate) were decisive affirmations of the people’s will for radical change to the political system.
   The triumph of the April 1993 referendum on electoral reform disguised some of the serious defects inherent in overuse of the referendum strategy. In both April 1993 and June 1995, voters were asked to make absurdly technical changes to the law on a vast range of subjects, as well as deciding major issues such as electoral reform and the privatization of the state broadcasting system. Referendum fatigue has also set in. Since 1995, no referendum has reached the 50 percent quota that makes its results legally binding. In June 2005, an attempt to repeal a highly controversial law restricting infertility treatment and artificial insemination attracted only 25 percent of the electorate to the polls. The reliance on the referendum has long been regarded as a sign of Italy’s need for constitutional and political reform, but recent referendums seem to show that Italy’s voters have lost faith even in this instrument.

Historical Dictionary of Modern Italy. . 2007.

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