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Italy divided as voters take part in key constitutional referendum on parliamentary powers

Italians are having their say on slashing the powers of their upper house of parliament in a referendum proposed by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. The fate of the Senate has caused heated debate, as Renzi has pledged to quit if the ‘No’ camp wins.

Today, voters are deciding on whether to approve a constitutional amendment put forth by the Italian prime minister that would see a break in the tradition of so-called “perfect bicameralism,” which has prevailed in Italy for decades. Under the 1948 Constitution, the Italian parliament is made up of a Chamber of Deputies and a Senate. The institutions are equal in power, and all legislation must be adopted by both chambers to be passed, which has repeatedly caused political deadlock in Italy. The core of Renzi’s reform, first proposed two years ago, envisions cutting the Senate’s powers and reducing the number of its members from 315 to 100. Those remaining would be elected by regional assemblies, and not directly, as is currently the case.

If the referendum passes, most bills would only need approval from the Chamber of Deputies to become law, with the exception of passing constitutional reforms or ratifying EU treaties. During the referendum drive, the prime minister argued that these measures would spare Italy from political gridlock and aid its economic growth. However, critics, including the opposition Five-Star Movement led by Beppe Grillo, fear that, if passed, the amendment will destroy political balance and give the government too much power.

Renzi gambles on referendum

The referendum has become critical for current Italian politics, as Renzi has pledged to step down if his opponents get the upper hand. “If the citizens vote ‘No’ and want a decrepit system that does not work, I will not be the one to deal with other parties for a caretaker government,” Renzi said in an interview with Rtl 102.5 radio, as quoted by Italian newspaper Repubblica. In that case, Italy may face a snap election amid growing support for the Euroskeptic Grillo party.

Renzi’s proposals have caused quite a divide in the Italian population, resulting in pro- and anti-government rallies sprouting up across the country. One of the largest protests against the reform, which was staged by the right-wing Liga Nord party, took place in Florence on November 11, where some 12,000 people attended. Similar rallies, some of which resulted in clashes with police, have been seen in Rome, Palermo and other key cities.

However, Matteo Renzi has not been short of supporters either, with numerous demonstrations backing his measure also filling the streets of Italian towns and cities.

The mood remained divided on the eve of the referendum.

“I will vote yes, a convinced yes, because it is a great opportunity to speed up the political time,” a woman named Laura told RT’s Ruptly news agency in Florence. Her opinion was echoed by another voter, who called the constitutional amendment a step towards a “better democracy.”

However, supporters of the ‘No’ camp say that it is important “to keep the situation” as it is. Others say they see the referendum as an opportunity to get rid of Renzi.

“I am voting now, simply because it is a protest vote against the government of Renzi,” a man named Giovanni said.

On the contrary, many Western media outlets have warned of the dire consequences of the referendum, with many saying it could lead to the end of the eurozone. The Independent went with the headline: “The Italian referendum result could be the beginning of the end for the Eurozone.”

CNN echoed the thought, saying that Italy’s referendum vote is a “nightmare scenario” in the heart of Europe, which may lead to the country exiting the EU.

Matteo Renzi is known for criticizing the EU’s austerity policies, particularly those advocated by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He has also urged the European Union to develop a closer dialogue with Russia and stood up against imposing further sanctions on Moscow over its backing of the Syrian government’s operation against terrorists and rebel militants in Aleppo.

It is critical that Italy says ‘No,’ believes Cristian Invernizzi from the Lega Nord political party.

“Let’s think about the outgoing US Ambassador, let’s think about Europe, let’s think about the OSCE, let’s think about the big international investment banks. Why do they all side with ‘Yes? Because they all want to keep having an Italy submitted under this international order that cannot decide its own future,” he told RT. “We have to say ‘No just to have the opportunity to speak on the Constitution and guarantee to the citizens that their own rights, that means their sovereignty.”

However, Pierferdinando Casini, chairman of the Italian Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, believes that a ‘No’ victory “would be a lost opportunity.”

“It would mean going backwards, it would mean to defeat all that has been done in this country over this last year by Renzi’s government leap and, first of all, at President Napolitano’s impulse. Afterwards we are not leaving Europe, we are not leaving the euro, but this is cold comfort, because the whole world is asking if Italy is able to change, and I wish I could say for my country ‘Yes, we’ve been able to change,’” he said.