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How the Curse of the Quorum Poisoned Democracy

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Entrance to a polling station in Rome. Photo by Bruno Kaufmann

How the Curse of the Quorum Poisoned Democracy


On Sunday, 17 April 2016, Italy held a referendum on the question wheter to allow unlimited oil drilling. The popular vote was defeated as it did not reach the necessary turnout quorum of 50 per cent. Our board member Bruno Kaufmann observed the referendum in Rome and comments for People2Power on the 27th nationwide referendum that was invalidated due to the "undemocratic killer application" as he calls it, making the cause to solve the curse.



Last Sunday 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 glace 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 gelatis. 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.

Berlusconis offered the blueprint

From the very outset, this referendum, dealing with the future of oildrilling along the sensitive Meditterean 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 unustainable nuclear plants to replace fossil fuel sources.

In addition to that, back in 2011 the Italians voted against a far-ranging move to privatize public water ressources in the country. That vote not only guaranteed access to water asa  right but marked the beginning of the end for higly 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 italiani 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 disencourage 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.

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 Europé’s last dictatorships. And I have experienced, how a similar regulation as in Italy delayed democratic progress in Taiwan in the early 2010s.

 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 decison 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 politicans. Almost 20 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 nullfied. It is time to wake up, Bella Italia, and to simply abolish this quorum, which put your potentially very  vibrant democracy into question.

By Bruno Kaufmann, board member of Democracy International. This piece was published first at People2Power here.

It is also available in Italian, see here and in German, see here

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