Municipal elections and referendum on justice reform in Italy

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On the 12th, municipal elections (known there as "administrative") were held in around 980 municipalities throughout the country, as well as a "referendum" to legitimise the reform of the justice system undertaken by the Draghi government, "in carica" since mid-February 2021. And there was certainly no shortage of surprises in this meeting, with two standing out above the rest: the absence of more than a hundred presiding officers in the Palermo mayoral elections (where, incidentally, President Mattarella, a Palermitan by birth but resident in Rome as head of state, voted), which forced the voting in the island's capital to be delayed; and the very low turnout in the "referendum" on the reform of the justice system, which has left a large part of the ruling class in question.

Let's start with the first. There were no major surprises in an election in which there were hardly any important mayoralties at stake. In Genoa, the centre-right was rewarded for its efforts to rebuild the so-called "Morandi bridge" (which collapsed in a tragic collapse in mid-August 2018), while in Verona the centre-left candidate won. In Palermo, the centre-right won again, while in Parma the "right-hand man" of a former Cinque Stelle member (Pizzarotti) won. But, as is well known, the country's main cities had already renewed their respective city councils last October, so there was little at stake.

The "note" was struck by a number of polling stations in Palermo, where the corresponding polling station could not be set up due to the failure of the assigned incumbents to turn up. The Minister of the Interior (Lamorgese) reacted quickly and in the end it was possible to vote normally, but it remains to be seen whether or not this serious incident will end up having legal consequences. In any case, the municipal elections were held as expected, with a good turnout (around 54%) because, as is well known, this type of election is where the increasingly important "political disaffection" is least noticeable: people vote for the person, not the party, and what is more, the so-called "civic lists" are frequent, thus diluting the so-called "partitocacracy".

What could hardly have been expected was that only 16% of the electoral roll would vote for the long-awaited reform of the judiciary, one of the Draghi government's "star" measures, because the extreme parsimony with which trials are held in Italy is notorious. But when one looks closely at what has happened, one finds numerous reasons for the low turnout for a reform which, by the way, went ahead with an overwhelming "yes" vote, but which is completely sterile because it did not reach the "quorum" of 50% of the electorate. And there is plenty of blame to go around, despite the fact that some want to assign it all to Matteo Salvini's League, which was the main promoter of this reform.

The first to blame are clearly both the President of the Council of Ministers (Mario Draghi) and the Minister of Justice (Marta Cartabia). Because they have made practically no effort to involve voters in getting this reform through. Incredible as it may seem, Cartabia has not been seen in the media to explain what her reform consisted of. Her extraordinary level of discretion is well known, but, being the author of such an important reform, she should have been omnipresent in the "social media", but what has really "shone" is her absence. An absence that has not been covered by her prime minister, the Roman Draghi, who has also done practically nothing to publicise this reform, limiting himself to his weekly press conference appearances or the necessary parliamentary appearance.

Moreover, the two had no better idea than, in a country where the population is increasingly fed up with its political class, to turn the "referendum" (where the normal thing to do is to vote "yes", "no" or "don't know/no answer") into a kind of survey where you had to answer "yes" or "no" to up to five different questions. So it is to be expected that more than one of those who went to vote for the mayor or mayoress of their municipality, on seeing the "referendum" ballot paper, left it in its place without filling it in. This is reminiscent of the famous constitutional "referendum" of the Renzi government in December 2016, where the question of whether or not to vote in favour of it was asked in such a confusing way that many did not understand what they were being asked about. The worst thing is that the authors of that reform were two young men, Matteo Renzi (41) and Maria Elena Boschi (36), while Draghi is about to turn 75 and Cartabia, for his part, is approaching six decades of age.

Add to this the incoherence of some parties. A good example of this is the Democratic Party (PD), which, despite being part of the "maggioranza" that supports the Draghi government, opted for a "no" vote (clearly expressed through its most sympathetic media, the newspaper "La Repubblica") on the reform of the judiciary. The Five Star Movement, in turn, was also full of incoherence, but it has never wanted this reform because it had already tried its own at the time through the then Justice Minister Bonafede, a reform that was finally overturned with the fall of the centre-left coalition at the end of January 2021. 

In reality, only two major parties are saved from the "burning", albeit for different reasons. One is Meloni's Brothers of Italy, which is not part of the "maggioranza" and which has always stayed out of this reform: the Roman Meloni was much more concerned with consolidating its territorial power by winning its candidates in the municipalities in which they ran. The other person who escapes reproach is Matteo Renzi: his party abstained in the parliamentary votes on the reform, and Renzi justified this on the grounds that the new law did not put an end to the problem of the currents of judges through which power moved within the judiciary. But if Renzi is exculpated from this debacle, it is not because of the latter, but simply because for more than two years almost all the polls have given his party the status of extra-parliamentary, as it has not passed the "sbarramento" or threshold necessary to enter both Houses: in other words, Renzi's party has so little weight at the moment that, whatever the Tuscan politician might say, its influence on the vote and on the level of participation was practically at a minimum.

Surely there was one last element that explains the ridiculously low turnout: what happened in the election of the President of the Republic at the end of January this year.Let us recall what happened: six consecutive days of blocking each other to prevent the proposed candidate from emerging; the failed vote of the president of the Senate (Caselatti) as a result of the irruption of numerous "snipers" from her party; and, finally, the embarrassment of having to force an octogenarian (Sergio Mattarella, outgoing president) to repeat his mandate in the absence of a pact between the main political forces. All of this with a fundamental aim: to ensure that with Mattarella in the Quirinal, and with Draghi in the presidency of the Council of Ministers, everything would continue unaltered until the end of the legislature, scheduled for February-March 2023. And it is certain that more than one person had this element in mind and, when asked for their opinion on the reform of Justice, sent the entire political class, whom they loathe more and more every day, straight for a "walk". It is the "vendetta", a "dish" that is known to be served cold.

Draghi can already begin to think that he has entered the Monti government's dynamic: the parties have settled into the pre-electoral phase, with a lot at stake since the parliament has been reduced by a third, and they are already ignoring the premier. So, before there is a new government, they will approve the State Budget for 2023 and little else. Of course, Draghi already knows what this is all about and has long since begun to think about being the next president of the Republic. In any case, the lack of interest generated by the reform of Justice is very, very worrying: did you know that the "referendum" on divorce in 1970 and on abortion in 1981 had a turnout of between 88 and 78%? What a time those were!

Pablo Martín de Santa Olalla Saludes is a professor at the Centro Universitario ESERP and author of the book 'Historia de la Italia republicana, 1946-2021' (Madrid, Sílex Ediciones, 2021).