Referendums in Italy

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The Constitution of Italy provides for only two kinds of legally binding referendums:

Despite that the constitutional right to hold a popular referendum has existed since the Italian constitution was approved in late 1947, the necessary legislation detailing the bureaucratic procedures needed to have them was not approved until the early 1970s. As a consequence of this, Italy's first popular referendum was not held until 1974, 27 years after the constitution was first approved.

The first constitutional referendum was held in 2001, 54 years after the constitution was approved. All previous constitutional amendments had been approved by the supermajority of the Parliament, denying the possibility to call a referendum.


A popular referendum can be called only at the request five regional councils or 500,000 eligible Italian electors who sign an official validated petition and present a legal identity document to the committee (usually a political party) collecting the signatures.

Then, the petition (together with the thousands of pages of voter's personal details and signatures) must then be passed to the Court of Cassation which examines the validity of all the data.[3] After the signatures are verified the Constitutional Court of Italy examines subject matter of the petition itself. The court has the power to reject it outright.[4] Many fully valid petitions with the necessary 500,000 signatures have never been accepted as referendums precisely for this reason.

Provided the constitutional court approves the subject matter of the petition, the President of the Republic has to set a date for the vote between April 15 and June 15. The timing can be crucial as turnout at the polling stations may be much lower in summer months when voters take their holidays and the quorum required for the referendum to be valid may not be reached. If the government in office falls, voting on the referendums can be delayed by up to a year.

The final hurdle is that the result of the legislative referendum is only valid if at least a 50% + 1 of all eligible electors go to the polling station and cast their ballot. If this quorum is not met, the referendum is invalid and, in practice, it is a victory for the nays.

The entire bureaucratic process can take more than a year and a half; from the initial gathering of 500,000 signatures in public streets and squares across Italy (which can take several months in itself up to a maximum of three), all the way until electors are called to the polls.

Confusion in wording

Voters often get confused at the effect their vote will have, as they are being asked to vote "yes" or "no" to abolish an existing law. For example, in the 1974 referendum on divorce (which the Catholic Church had strongly petitioned for), voters were being asked whether they wanted to abolish a recent law allowing divorce for the first time in Italian history. Therefore, those voting "yes" wanted to outlaw divorce as it had been before the law came into effect, and those voting "no" wanted to retain the law and their newly gained right to divorce.

Political party use

The political party in Italy that is most closely associated with, and has made most use of, referendums in the last 40 years is the Radical Party led by Marco Pannella. They hold the record for most referendums presented. Despite only receiving around 2.5% of the popular vote in most national elections, the numerous referendums they have proposed over the years have often mobilised the entire Italian political spectrum in support or opposition. They will often use unconventional methods such as prolonged hunger strikes and/or thirst strikes by their leaders to draw attention to their cause. Their largest political battles came in the 1970s and 80's when they successfully campaigned for the right to divorce and the right to abortion.

Other groups have also made use of referendums to raise the profile of their own small political parties or their leaders or to raise awareness of their respective political agendas.[5] Signatures for referendums have been collected by parties across the political spectrum from the Northern League opposing a law on immigration in 1998 (this was ruled as inadmissible by the constitutional court when presented), all the way to the Italy of Values party when leader Antonio Di Pietro collected signatures in 1998 for a change in the electoral law to a full first past the post system. The Italian radical party and the right wing National Alliance were also collecting signatures for the same exact petition on electoral reform at the same time as Di Pietro's party, showing that often parties from vastly different political beliefs will agree on the same themes that they feel should be subject to referendums.

However, often political parties who are even in the same coalition will have very diverse opinions with regard to referendums. A notorious example of this came in 1999 when the right-wing National Alliance, led by Gianfranco Fini, was collecting signatures for two referendums to abolish political party state financing and a change in electoral law to a full first past the post system, while the Italian Radicals and Di Pietro's Italy of Values were also collecting signatures at the same time. Despite spending an enormous amount of manpower and party funds across all of Italy, his main partner in the House of Freedoms coalition, Forza Italia, led by former and soon to be Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, offered no political or financial support. When voting for the referendums took place in 2000, Berlusconi almost abstained and said the vote was "mostly pointless" as he would take care of all reforms when he would return to power.

When the House of Liberties coalition returned to power in 2001, Berlusconi did not abolish political party financing and even reintroduced proportional representation into the electoral law. Critics pointed out that these new measures, approved even with the parliamentary votes of Alleanza Nazionale itself, were proof that Fini and his party had made a complete volte-face and abandoned some of their core political reforms in order to stay in power. It was also seen as proof that Fini's influence in the coalition was not as strong as many were led to believe.


Over the years various criticisms of the legal processes popular referendums are subjected to have been raised, but as of 2007, no reforms have been made to the constitutional law in this aspect.

Criticism has been made with regard to the following:

Government response

Despite the fact that the results of referendums that meet the quorum are legally binding, successive Italian governments have repeatedly re-introduced laws that are very similar to those that have been abolished by the public. Critics have cited this practice as a blatant disregard of the results of the democratic referendums.

A notorious example of this is the law on political party financing. The law states that after an election, every political party that has been elected to parliament is entitled to a monetary "refund" (taken from public funds) for every single vote they obtained. The Italian public has voted to abolish this law in legislative referendums in 1978 and again in 1993. Both referendums meet the quorum, but the law was reinstated under different terms. A third legislative referendum was held again in 2000 to abolish party financing but it failed to meet the quorum, however, of those who did vote, over 70% voted to abolish the law for the third time.

Another example of this practice concerns Italy's electoral law. In an effort to move Italy to a more stable form of government with an alternating two-party system, referendums were held in 1991 and 1993 to abolish laws allowing full proportional representation in elections to the Italian Parliament. Despite both referendums meeting the quorum, and a new first-past-the-post electoral system being used in Italian national elections from 1994 to 2001, the Berlusconi government in 2005 partially reinstated proportional representation under a new law.

The practice of successive governments re-introducing laws that have been abolished by the public has been cited as a major factor in voter apathy in the use of referendums as a democratic tool. Critics allege that this is the main reason that no referendums have been able to meet the quorum since 1997, despite high voter turnout for national and regional elections held in the same years.


It is forbidden to call a referendum regarding financial laws, laws relating to pardons, or the ratification of international treaties: it is therefore not allowed to vote to abolish a tax, or to pardon a criminal (note that ancient Rome used to have exactly such an institution, the provocatio ad populum). Some political parties have asked, unsuccessfully so far, to held a referendum on EU Constitution. However, this is impossible under current legislation, because it's forbidden to hold a referendum about international treaties.

Constitutional referendum


A constitutional referendum can be called only when a constitutional law or constitutional amendment has been approved twice by both legislative Houses of the Parliament of Italy (the Italian Chamber of Deputies and Italian Senate), if the second time - at least 3 months after the first one - it has been approved with a majority of less than two thirds in both or either Chamber, and only at the request of one fifth of the members of either House, or 500,000 electors or five regional councils. It cannot be requested more than 3 months after the second approval by the Parliament.

In contrast to the popular referendums, the constitutional referendum is confirmatory. This means a "yes" vote means you want to retain the law, whereas voting "yes" in a popular referendum means you want to abolish the law.

In addition, a constitutional referendum is not subject to a quorum and is valid regardless of how many electors go to the polling station.

Other referendums

The first further variation was the one-of-a-kind institutional referendum in 1946, before the constitution was written, in which voters had to choose between retaining the monarchy or establishing a republic. The republic won by a narrow margin.

The second variation was a consultative referendum held in 1989 in which voters had to express their opinion about conferring a constitutional-drafting role to the European Parliament. The referendum was held after an ad hoc constitutional law was adopted.

During the 1990s, various law allowing local referendums were approved. Since then, many municipal referendums were called in various cities. A quorum is generally necessary to approve a local referendum, but it is usually lower than the national quorum, a third of the electors sometimes needing to validate the referendum.

Italians living abroad

Italian citizens living outside of Italy have always had the right to vote in all referendums and elections being held in Italy (provided they had registered their residence abroad with their relevant consulate). However until late 2001, any citizen wishing to vote, was required to physically return to the city or town in Italy where he or she was registered on the electoral roll. The only exception to this rule was for the Italian elections to the European parliament in which voters could cast their ballot at their nearest consulate but only if they had their residence in one of the other 14 EU countries.

Until 2001 the Italian state offered citizens living abroad a free return train journey to their home town in Italy in order to vote, however the portion of the train journey that was free of charge was only on Italian soil. Any costs incurred in getting from their place of residence abroad to the Italian border had to be covered by the citizen wanting to vote, therefore a free return train journey was hardly an incentive for the large Italian communities living as far away as in the United States, Argentina, Brazil or Australia. For this reason very few Italians abroad made use of this right to vote, unless they lived in cities and towns that bordered to Italy such as in Switzerland, France and Austria. Various Italian minorities living abroad (notably in the United States) protested frequently at this lack of political representation especially if they paid taxes on property owned in Italy.

After decades of petitioning and fierce debate, the Italian government, in late 2001, finally passed a law allowing Italian citizens living abroad to vote in elections in Italy by postal ballot. Italians wishing to excise this right must first register their residence abroad with their relevant consulate. The first referendum voted on by Italians living aboard by postal ballot was in 2003.

List of referendums

Overall, Italians have been called on to decide on 70 referendum questions on national topics. They approved 25 of them, rejected 17 and invalidated 27.[6]

Referendum on the form of State

Constitutional referendums

Consultative referendum


  1. Article 75 of the Constitution of Italy.
  2. Article 138 of the Constitution of Italy.
  3. (Italian) Il referendum tra società civile e istituzioni, in Il Parlamento, 1990.
  4. (Italian) Perché non poteva essere considerato ammissibile.
  5. The impact-at-large of the referendum is merely factual and it is subject to the political circumstances in which the referendum result would fall: Buonomo, Giampiero (2016). "Il referendum sulla durata della concessione di coltivazione di idrocarburi liquidi e gassosi entro le 12 miglia dalla linea costiera". Diritto pubblico europeo.   via Questia (subscription required)
  6. it:Elenco delle consultazioni referendarie in Italia List of referendums in Italy (Italian)
  7. "Scheda / La nuova Costituzione e il nuovo Senato (versione solo testo)". 12 October 2015. Retrieved 27 September 2016.
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