Commentary. The duty of Parliament is to “make the people present.” This is the source of all its other powers, which allow it to exercise a leading role in the determination of the political direction to pursue.

Proposed cuts to the number of Italian MPs are a threat to representation

Parliamentary representation can be properly called the heart of the Italian constitutional system. To “re-present” literally means “to make something present” once again.

For countless millennia, from the paintings of animals in the prehistoric caves to the statues of the classical age, from the Byzantine icons to the portraits of the kings in the old monarchies, we have recognized that images have the ability to act at every level—miraculous, magical, symbolic, political—by making present the full power of the model, whether real or abstract, that they are representing.

But who does Parliament represent? Who is it that has the power that is being transferred into Parliament, just as it was supposed to work for those ancient idols? The subject holding the power cannot exert it by itself, but its presence is nevertheless essential for the political-institutional system. Of course, we are referring to “the people”: an entity widely presupposed, imagined, hypothesized, invoked or called upon, but which is not concretely knowable by anyone, because it is an abstract concept.

“The people” is the sum total of the citizens: those to whom the rules that assign citizenship apply. One can only know its individual components, each taken individually, but not all of them as a whole. Yet, it is precisely to this whole that the Italian Constitution (Art. 1, paragraph 2) assigns the fundamental power, the one which makes the State what it is: namely, sovereignty, a power that does not recognize any authority above itself. One can easily understand, therefore, why representation has such a decisive importance: the supreme Constitutional power is attributed to an abstraction, which only the act of representation can make concrete.

The duty of Parliament is to “make the people present.” This is the source of all its other powers, which allow it to exercise a leading role in the determination of the political direction to pursue. The Parliament was placed by the framers at the center of the system precisely because it is in Parliament, through the political parties, that “the people” ceases to be an abstraction, and becomes a concrete reality.

It’s quite clear that we are talking about an artifice, something that can function better or worse. It has functioned well during the first phase of the history of the Republic, and in particular between the early ‘60s and late ‘70s: not surprisingly, those were the years in which reforms were approved that could make Italian society more just. 

During the following decades, it worked less and less well. The turning point was the 1993 change in the electoral law from a proportional system to a majoritarian one, which altered the structure of representation by making it possible to win a majority in Parliament for those who represented a minority in society. All the rhetoric about the so-called “governability” of the country has muddied our reflection on this subject, obfuscating a fact that used to be obvious, but is now counterintuitive: namely, that Constitutional institutions are working well not when the government has a free hand to act, but when Parliament is truly representative. Only then is it truly able to react to deep social needs, and transform these into durable and wide-ranging political projects.

This is why the Italian framers paid great attention to the construction of representation, elaborating a mechanism which would be capable, at least potentially, to reproduce the complexities of Italian society in a sufficiently accurate manner. Despite having identical functions, the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate differed greatly from one another: in terms of term duration (five and six years respectively), territorial basis (national versus regional), the minimum age for voting in the respective elections (18 versus 25) and age eligibility criteria for their members (25 versus 40). Democracy was at the heart of the setup, not “governability.”

The attention paid to the issue of representation also explains the original choice of the number of MPs, which was not set out as a fixed number—as modified later by the 1963 constitutional reform, which decided on 630 deputies and 315 senators—but as a function of the population: one deputy for every 80,000 inhabitants and one senator for every 200,000 inhabitants. It was a system in which the number of MPs would increase in lockstep with the population, in order to keep their capacity for representation intact. If this rule had been preserved, we would have roughly 750 deputies and 300 senators nowadays, more than we currently do.

Those who believe that reducing the number of MPs is a priority today—and who argue by pointing to the (overinflated) estimates of all the money we would save—seem to be ignoring the centrality of representation. By reducing the members of Parliament to a mere cost item in the budget, instead of favoring the identification between the elected and the electors—which is the ultimate goal of representation—this notion casts the two as having conflicting interests, thus further eroding the representative function and, with it, the centrality of Parliament in our constitutional system—and, accordingly, the centrality of the people. 

This is why those who claim they want to bring more democracy are actually working to reinforce the oligarchy. One wonders whether they have fallen into this paradox unwittingly or as a matter of willful disruption.

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