ROME — Italy has seen 55 different governments in the last 50 years. But a new initiative to reform the Constitution and add a greater degree of balance of power among the branches of the government may significantly alter the variable scene of Italian politics.
Bickering among Italy's politicians over just how to go about revising the country's 50-year-old Constitution came to an end recently with the creation of a special parliamentary commission.
Members of the lower house of parliament had no trouble Jan. 23 reaching the two-thirds majority needed to assemble the special legislative body comprising 70 parliamentarians from both the lower house and the Senate.
For the next five months, the commission's job will be to propose far-reaching constitutional reforms that are expected to streamline the electoral process and strengthen the executive branch. Once the commission finishes its work, Italians will vote on the proposed reforms in a referendum, possibly as early as September.
The new constitution is expected to pave the way for the transformation of Italy into a two-party system while creating a new, powerful figure to head the executive branch. The end result would be a shift in the balance of power from the legislative to the executive branch and, politicians hope, longer and more stable governments.
"Hopefully, what will happen five months down the road is that parliament will divest itself of the excessive powers it holds, giving them back to the executive branch," explains Saverio Vertone, a historian and member of parliament. "The result will be steadier governments and less bureaucracy."
No more calls for independence?
The decentralization and downsizing of government will also be a priority, much to Umberto Bossi's dismay. The leader of the separatist Northern League has made it clear that his party will not sit in on the commission because, he says, "it will produce a mess, with a touch of federalism and a whole lot of everything else."
The Northern League most recently has called for the complete independence of the north of Italy, which it has dubbed Padania. The league bases its demands on the frustration many northerners have with southern Italy's slow economy and an inept, and often corrupt, central government.
Observers have pointed out that if the bicamerale, as the joint parliamentary commission is known, carries out federalist reforms, giving the Italian states greater autonomy, Mr. Bossi's party might lose its raison d'etre.
Significantly, months of bitter dispute over the bicamerale have failed to give Italians an idea of what is going on.
With the word bicamerale - which comes from camera, or room - on the front page of every major newspaper for six months, one would expect ordinary Italians to have a sense of what is being discussed. That, however, does not seem to be the case.
Vox populi: We're clueless
The problem appears to be the way politicians talk. The political syntax used in reference to the bicamerale has grown so garbled and historical references so confusing that the vast majority of Italians are simply unaware their Constitution is about to be changed.
"The bicamerale?" muses a woman shopping on posh via Condotti in Rome. "It's what our new parliament will look like. It will still be divided in the lower house and the Senate but will be much smaller and faster."
"You're way off track," her friend interrupts. "The bicamerale is a new committee they've set up in parliament." Pressed for more details, she shakes her head. "Don't ask me what they plan to do with the committee, but if I had one guess, I'd say they'll raise taxes."
To the fruit vendors in Campo dei Fiori, a bustling market in the historic center of Rome, the bicamerale may as well be an exotic fruit or vegetable. "I don't know, and I'm not interested," says Franco M. as he hands one of his customers a bag full of nectarines.
Among those who do not know what the bicamerale is, many suspect it is a devious scheme by the government but are unclear as to its specific end.
"I have no idea what this bicamerale is about, and I don't care," says Alessandro Panatta, a teenage student. "But it's got to be some law that allows [politicians] to steal some more."
"The bicamerale is a committee made up from members of both houses of parliament," says Ivan Bertucci, owner of a newspaper stand in Piazza San Silvestro. "Don't ask me what they'll do. They'll probably take turns sleeping."
"It's something in parliament," mumbles a young woman. Her friend, an architecture student, is much more assertive. "Yes, it's in parliament and it's this thing that's going to make new laws about the way we vote." Asked what will be different about the electoral system, she shrugs: "I don't know."
Robert Fasulo, an American who has been in Italy for over 10 years, believes politicians are mostly to blame for the confusion: "These people talk in circles."
Even recent headlines do not exactly shine for clarity. "[Foreign Minister Lamberto] Dini tells [opposition leader] Silvio Berlusconi: Let's do the bicamerale together," was the cryptic front page headline in Italy's leading paper, Il Corriere della Sera, earlier this month.
As Indro Montanelli, an editorialist for Il Corriere, noted: "Who can blame Italians for not having a clue?"