Judging by the debate surrounding the changes proposed by the Renzi government to the Italian constitution, one would gather the impression that this set of fundamental principles is some sort of sacred authority, an institution always already perfect in its form and therefore untouchable. The term “perfect”, in particular, has been regularly used to describe the Italian Constitution by those who want to highlight its extraordinary flexibility and applicability to a wide range of different situations. What has historically characterised most constitutions around the world, however, is not their fixity, but a continuous process of adaptation to historical necessity.
A few years ago Google developed Constitute, a regularly updated online platform that aims at comparing different constitutions in the world; the launch of this initiative brought to light important data about the variability of constitutions: every year an average of five new ones are born and thirty are modified. You would be forgiven for thinking that this is mostly the case for recently formed states, and the assumption is not completely wrong, but a quick look at Constitute shows that older states, whose constitutions date back to the end of the eighteenth century, have also introduced amendments to these. Among the states of the European Union (EU), only Denmark seems not to have modified its constitution since 1953, when it was first put in writing; data about all the other EU states indicate that their texts have all been reviewed at some point in the twenty-first century.
Constitute allows for a practical understanding of these changes: using its research tools it is for example possible to search and compare legislations on indigenous populations; as it may be expected, most results are related to the constitutions of Latin American countries, together with other former colonial countries such as Uganda, Angola, India and Kiribati, whose constitutions are younger and therefore more attuned to the rights of vulnerable populations. Next to these states, however, we also find the names of older European nations interested in protecting the equal right to representation, self-governance and vote of the different ethnicities within their borders: in addition to recently formed states, such as Slovenia (created in 1990 and whose constitution dates back to 1991), and those born from territorial disputes, such as Portugal (which in 1975 already recognised regional and administrative autonomy to the Azores and Madeira), the case of Belgium stands out: in possession of a constitution since 1831, in 1993 the country started an important constitutional reform that created a federal state, which accommodates better for the linguistic and cultural differences of the different regions – Bruxelles, Flanders and Wallonia – in which it is divided today. Significant is also the example of Greece, which has changed its constitution a number of times since 1975, introducing modifications in the field of human rights, with particular focus on its indigenous populations.
The Italian Constitution has itself been modified a number of times over the years: from its creation in 1948 to the year 2003 twenty-seven amendments have been approved with the support of two-thirds of the Chamber of Deputies and of the Senate of the Republic (Chambers) – a case which makes popular consultation unnecessary – on themes ranging from the modalities of election and parliamentary immunity, to the introduction of the concept of equal opportunities between genders. Constitutional referendums are not alien to the country either: in 2001 the Italian people approved the revision of Article Five, which extended the competences and autonomy of regions, while in 2006 the project of constitutional revision which would have transformed the Italian Republic in a federal one was rejected.
The development of referendums can be understood as a way of expanding participatory democracy: virtually all the existing democracies in the world provide for some form of popular consultation, which enables direct control of institutions on the part of citizens. Only five of the great contemporary constitutional democracies never held national referendums: Holland, Japan, India, Israel and the United States; while Belgium only ever held one national referendum, in 1950, which restored king Leopold III to its throne. The absence of referendums on a national level is often linked to the existence of federal governments, as is the case with the United States, where these are often held in counties. Switzerland’s case is somewhat similar, with countless examples of local referendums on specific issues, but changes to the constitution must be approved by popular vote nationally, which explains the high number of constitutional referendums in its history: 144 where in fact held between 1848 and 1990.
What makes Italian constitutional referendums a peculiar case is their “repudiatory” character: the proposal of constitutional revision does not come from the grass-root level, but has already been voted by the Chambers at the moment of popular consultation; article 138 of the Italian Constitution allows for referendums to be called for both by institutions and population, the latter being asked to vote on the modifications proposed in both cases. Concretely, this means that constitutional referendums have always been called for by governments when the support of the political opposition could not be obtained: it also means that the vote can bring to the surface agreements as well as strong discrepancies between institutional and popular agendas. This is why international media look with concern at the Italian referendum taking place in December: “What spooks investors” writes The Economist, “is not so much that Italy could lose a once-in-a-generation opportunity to sort itself out, but that Mr Renzi’s departure could pitch the country back into political disarray and spark a wider crisis in the EU economy”.