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Pioneering role Italy gets the world’s first minister for direct democracy

Riccardo Fraccaro

Riccardo Fraccaro began as an environmental activist at a local level in northern Italy. The 37-year old member of the Five Star Movement is in charge of direct democracy issues in the new Italian government.  

(Keystone)

Italian President Sergio Mattarella has named Riccardo Fraccaro as the first national minister for direct democracy - alongside a new 18-member cabinet.

The appointment comes as the Italian capital, Rome, earlier this year adopted a city charter establishing new forms of initiatives and referendums.

Nothing works smoothly in Italy, where yet another national government, the 66th since 1946, was sworn in last Friday, nearly 72 years after the historic referendum on abolishing the monarchy and establishing the modern Italian Republic.

Following the March 4 election, it took the parties and the president almost three months to agree on a coalition treaty and ministerial list.

And there are many challenges ahead for new non-partisan Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte as he prepares to deal with ministers from the internet-governed Five Star Movement and the far-right League. Nobody knows when the time will come for Italy’s 67th government.

Interestingly, the two victorious parties – the Five Star Movement won 32% of the vote, the League 17% – have agreed to reform Italy’s direct democracy system by abolishing the prohibitively high hurdles for validating a popular vote on a substantive issue.

Over the last 20 years, Italians have been able to decide directly on 31 nationwide laws. But in 27 cases, including a recent referendum on offshore oil drilling, their votes were simply invalidated by an undemocratic clause.

Quorum

Specifically, according to article 75external link of the Italian constitution, a popular vote on a law is only valid if at least half of registered voters actually participate in the ballot.

What at first sight could be interpreted as a reasonable requirement by the constitution to ensure a good turn-out is in fact threatening democracy as such – not only in Italy, but everywhere where such turnout quorums are in place.

While earlier governments tried and failed to change the quorum rules –including former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s failed attempt at overhauling the constitution in 2016 – the 66th government now includes one of the most outspoken critics of current Italian democracy, a 37-year-old member of parliament from the Five Star Movement.

Riccardo Fraccaro has been strongly promoting active citizenship and participatory democracy since he became an activist on waste issues in his home town of Trento. Back in 1994, citizen activists and leading politicians from across Europe gathered in the same northern Italian city to design a first version of what later became the European Citizens’ Initiativeexternal link.

Citizens’ initiative with counter-proposal

And as a member of the National Parliamentexternal link since 2013, Fraccaro has been at the forefront of attempts to promote modern forms of direct democracy at all political levels.

Now he has a unique opportunity to become an important voice in the global democratisation movement: he has been named Minister for Direct Democracy, a brand-new post in government.

Indeed, Italy has made history as Fraccaro is the first such Minister for Direct Democracyexternal link in any national government in the world.

In an interview with the Il Fatto Quotiadianoexternal link newspaper, he outlined the options and limitations of a modern direct democracy legislation in Italy.

“Citizens’ initiatives for new laws must obey the same rules as parliamentary initiatives, including the financing of a reform and its compatibility with the constitution,” Fraccaro says.

Inspired by Swiss practice, the new cabinet minister also proposed the introduction of the possibility of counter-proposals by the government and parliament.

“At the end of the day citizens can make a wise decision after a large public deliberation,” he said.

Local back-up from Rome

A supporting factor in bringing direct democracy forward in Italy lies in the parallel moves initiated by Fraccaro’s party colleagues – including Virginia Raggi, elected mayor of Rome two years ago.

Raggi – who like Fraccaro is not yet 40 years old – has had a hard time bringing order to Rome, largely due to a complex structure and corrupt political culture that has made the three million capital notoriously ungovernable.

But despite all the bad press Raggi and her team – notably Angelo Sturni, in charge of direct democracy at the local level – succeeded in reforming the City Charterexternal link. Earlier this spring, the Rome parliament adopted a series of new forms of participatory and direct democracy at the local level.

It also decided to initiate a global conversation about a Magna Cartaexternal link of Democratic Cities around the world.

This initiative will be discussed at the forthcoming Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy in Romeexternal link, on September 26-29 this year.

There is no guarantee that Italian developments on direct democracy will be successful. However, the new reform attempts from governments at both the local and national level are encouraging.

The creation of new political offices to support direct democracy could help achieve a long-desired goal for global direct democracy: a truly supportive infrastructure for the people’s participation in politics.

Bruno Kaufmann is the director of international cooperation at the Swiss Democracy Foundationexternal link and co-president of the Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracyexternal link  This article was first published by the online global democracy platform people2powerexternal link​​​​​​​

swissinfo.ch/P2P

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