Referenda will be the key word in the second half of 2016. That's plural for referendum, because the ones that will mobilize Lombardy and Veneto, two regions that together account for nearly 15 million inhabitants, a quarter of the Italian population, will come on top of the one - wanted dearly by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi - on whether to abolish bicameralism at central level.
Needless to say, the main issue here is that of autonomy, an age-old topic that is on the margins of the political debate but that in the two regions in question can count on a quiet, compact majority of die-hard supporters. The two Northern League governors, Roberto Maroni - who however has lost some force after his failed candidacy in Varese - and Luca Zaia are so well aware of this that they have decided to coordinate their moves in order to hold parallel election days by the end of this year.
Lombardy tried in every way to pair the referendum on autonomy with the constitutional one in October. The benefits would have been evident, especially in terms of costs (€20 million have already been put aside in the budget in the event that the referendum should take place autonomously), but it was to no avail. The case law on the matter is clear: a constitutional referendum cannot be paired with any other issue that may confuse voters.
In this particular case, the confusion would've been twofold: a constitutional reform that is certainly not federalist would've been matched with a question (”Do you want additional forms and conditions of autonomy to be assigned to the Veneto Region?”) that goes in the opposite direction.
Maroni and Zaia also tried to force the issue to attempt to protect themselves from the risks of inquiries by the Court of Auditors. To the point that Maroni was willing to sit down with the Democratic Party, and the opposition, to assess how to employ the €20 million saved in the event that the two referenda had been held on a single date.
A move that however got no results. Apparently the same result achieved by Zaia when he told the Minister for Regional Affairs Enrico Costa and his undersecretary from Belluno Gianclaudio Bressa that what Veneto was aiming for is the South Tyrolean autonomy model, which would allow the region to withhold 90% of the IRPEF-tax paid on its territory.
The government immediately took a step back, reminding Zaia that all talks of money and power transfers must remain within the confines of article 116 of the Constitution. In Veneto they consider the initiative a mere “publicity stunt” by the governor - an intrepid Northern League politician who is establishing the parameters of an edgy and difficult negotiation. Maroni and Zaia however have a strong argument in their favor: the fiscal surpluses (€18.2 billion for Veneto, €53.9 billion for Lombardy) are diluted in the name of a national rebalancing that impoverishes the rich but does not feed the poor.
Mario Bertolissi, a Constitutional law professor at the University of Padua and responsible for handling the case before the Constitutional Court of the two laws approved by the Veneto region on popular consultation (one on independence, the other on autonomy) that are currently being challenged by the government, notes that an approved referendum is tantamount to a “constituent act.” Meaning that, in the aftermath of the popular celebrations, if the 'yes' camp were to win, the two regions would open an unknown chapter in the history of the Italian Republic.
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