Referendums in Italy, 70 years of direct democracy

On April 17th Italian citizens will vote, it will be the country’s 67° popular referendum. The constitution allows for two types of biding referendums: abrogative and constitutional. How do they work, and how common are they?

In January Italy’s constitutional court gave the green light to a national referendum on the duration of oil and gas drilling concessions in the country. It will be the 67° abrogative referendum of Italy’s history, and 71st in total. A referendum is a direct vote in which an entire electorate is asked to vote on a particular proposal, Italy has two main types.

Art.75 – Italian Constitution – A popular referendum shall be held to abrogate, totally or partially, a law or an act having the force of law, when requested by five hundred thousand electors or five Regional Councils. A referendum is not permitted in the case of tax, budget, amnesty and pardon laws, or the authorization or ratification of international treaties. All citizens eligible to vote for the Chamber of Deputies have the right to participate in referendums. The proposal subject to referendum is approved if the majority of those with voting rights have voted and the proposal as received a majority of validly cast votes. The procedures for conducting a referendum are established by law.

500.000 voters, or five regional councils, can ask to hold a general referendum to repeal, in whole or in a part, a law or a measure having the force of law. In the Italian system these referendums are referred to as “abrogative“. They are considered valid as long as the majority of those with voting rights have voted. So far, 66 abrogative referendum have taken place in Italy. 40% of them did no reach the required quorum.

Art. 138 – Italian Constitution – Laws amending the Constitution and other constitutional laws shall be adopted by each House after two successive debates at intervals of not less than three months, and shall be approved by an absolute majority of the members of each House on the second vote. The said laws are submitted to a popular referendum within three months of their publication, when requested by one fifth of the members of a House or five hundred thousand electors or five Regional Councils.The law submitted to a referendum shall not be promulgated if it is not approved by a majority of valid votes. A referendum shall not be held if the law has been approved in the second voting by each of the Houses by a majority of two-thirds of the members

The second most common type of referendum in Italy is the so called “constitutional referendum“. Following the approval of a law that modifies the constitution, either one fifth of the members of a House, or 500.000 voters, or five Regional Councils can request a popular referendum to confirm the changes. This kind of referendum has no quorum. The first constitutional referendum took place in 2001 (approved), and the second in 2006 (rejected). If the current constitutional reform being discussed in parliament successfully completes its iter, Premier Renzi announced that he will call for a constitutional referendum.

Besides these two types of referendums, Italy’s history witnessed two exceptions. In 1946 Italian citizens were asked to chose between monarchy and republic. In 1989 an advisory referendum was held on the European Economic Community. The non-binding referendum was called with a special law, because the Italian Constitution does not speak about this type of referendum. The Italian political spectrum wanted to re-affirm the popular support of Italy to the process of European integration, particularly giving to the European Parliament a popular, constitutional mandate in event of a future European Constitution.