How the Curse of the Quorum Poisoned Democracy

In the last 20 years Italians could directly decide on 31 nationwide laws. But in 27 cases, including the recent referendum on oil drilling, their votes were simply invalidated by an undemocratic killer application. It is time to solve this curse, writes Bruno Kaufmann from Rome.

Sunday, April 17 was simply a wonderful day for a sun-thirsty resident of Northern Europe. A green and blooming Rome seemed to embrace everbody with its romantic charm. People pilgrimaged to newly opened ice cream stands, which seemed to shoot out of the fertile ground. Blues skies and temperatures around 28C (low 80s F) just made this day perfect. Or almost perfect, as it turned out later that night.

But the reason that I made the trip to Southern Europe was not the warm temperatures or the delicious gelati. I was there to observe the 31th popular referendum on a nationwide law approved by the Italian parliament in just 20 years. In these last two decades Italy has made many efforts to become a more modern, stable and efficient country. A country that does not just look back to a great history - similar to Greece - but also has the potential to innovate and influence a whole continent with great ideas and promising solutions.

Berlusconi's offered the blueprint

From the very outset, this referendum, dealing with the future of oil-drilling along the sensitive Mediterranean coastlines, offered great opportunities as well. In environmental and energy issues, Italy has in fact taken a progressive stand even on the global level by not allowing unsustainable nuclear plants to replace fossil fuel sources.

It is time to wake up, Bella Italia, and to simply abolish this quorum, which put your potentially very vibrant democracy into question.

In addition to that, back in 2011 the Italians voted against a far-ranging move to privatize public water resources in the country. That vote not only guaranteed access to water as a right but marked the beginning of the end for highly problematic regime of billionaire-show man Silvio Berlusconi.

It was this 80-year-old right-wing prime minister who managed to turn the so-called "turnout quorum", from just one feature in the Italian constitution into an efficient weapon against people power. Berlusconi simply did everything in his powers as a leading politician and the main owner of Italy´s private TV-channels to discourage people from participating in referendum votes. And in the process, he convinced people to invalidate the whole enormous electoral exercise of 50+ million citizens.

Renzi continued the battle against the people

According to article 75 of the Italian constitution, a law approved by the two chambers of the Italian Parliament needs to be put forward to a popular vote, if at least 500´000 citizens or 5 regional councils ask for it. However, the subsequent popular vote only get its validity - independently if a majority says yes or no - if at least "half of the members in the electoral list" participate in the vote. What at first could be interpreted as a reasonable requirement by the constitution to get a good turn-out in fact threatens democracy as such – not only in Italy, but everywhere such similar requirements are in place.

The most recent experience in Italy on April 17, when more than 50 million Italians in the country (47 mill.)  and abroad (3 mill.) were called to decide on the future of oil-drilling, is yet another example of why and how the quorum has become the curse of democracy in "Bella Italia".

As soon as Prime Minister Matteo Renzi (of the centre-left democratic party) understood that a popular vote on his plan to prolong oil-drilling could not be avoided, he lined up a series of measures to make a sufficient turnout at the April 17 unlikely: First the vote was scheduled with short notice on just one day (different than the normal practice of two voting days), and no advance, remote or postal voting was available. Second, the oil-drilling referendum was scheduled separately from other popular votes (such as those coming up in June and October this year). Third, and most controversially, the Prime Minister and some (but not all) of his supporters openly advised the Italians not to respect the very process of the popular vote - and to simply abstain from participating. While forbidden by law, this practice has been used by Renzi´s predecessors as well. The result: no- and non-voters are counted together and by closing time at 11 pm on Sunday, just 32,15% of the electorate had cast their ballot.

Napoleon did in Switzerland - in 1802

Now, such not very nice tricks are well known from history and many rather undemocratic authocracies around the world. In fact, Napoleon Bonaparte tried once - back in 1802 - to unify Switzerland by a popular vote, in which the non-participants were simply counted as affirmative to the French emperor´s idea of a unitarian Swiss state. It did not work, and should not work in any country.

As an election and referendum observer around the world, I have seen how such turnout quorums have turned Belorussia from democratic hopeful in the early 1990s into one of Europe´s last dictatorships. And I have experienced, how a similar regulation as in Italy delayed democratic progress in Taiwan in the early 2010s.

Direct Democracy Forum in Italian Parliament

Organised by D-CENT in co-operation with the Five Star Movement and supported by a conference on modern direct democracy was taking place in the Italian Parliament on April 18 gathering politicians, activists, researchers and academics, civil society organizations and developers. It explored innovative methods and digital tools to strengthen large scale citizen participation in the political process at European level and debated public policies at the municipal, national and European level to transform democratic participation. See the webcast

Now, I am rather depressed at how a mature democracy like Italy, in an almost masochistic manner, once again has fallen into the very same trap. After all, the April 17 vote violated even the principle of the "secrecy of the vote" as only one side of the decision had to turn out actively. To finish: this country invested more than 300 million Euro (340 mill. USD) in a serious electoral exercise, which at the same time openly was attacked and undermined by its main leading politicians. Almost 15 million Italians had to go to their very own voting district (it is not allowed to vote elsewhere), knowing that most likely their vote simply will be nullified. It is time to wake up, Bella Italia, and to simply abolish this quorum, which put your potentially very vibrant democracy into question.

This article is also available in German and Italian.