Another referendum

I was reading the (Italian) newspapers today and saw a few articles about the upcoming Referendum. It will be held in September and it will legislate about whether the constitution should be changed to modify the number of MPs (400 from the current 630 in the lower house, Camera dei Deputati; and 200 from 315 in the upper house, the Senate). This is a long-standing debate in Italian politics — I think that the original constitution only mandated a number of representative that was proportional to the population and the number was later fixed in the 1960s. Every now and again, we remember that all that is wrong with Italy is to do with the elected representatives (of course not with us sending them to Montecitorio and Palazzo Madama!…) and one recurring theme is that we have too many MPs.

Taken at face value, I think this is incontrovertible. The Italian Parliament is, in absolute terms, the third largest in the world — at least according to recorded data. Only China and the UK have larger parliaments than Italy. And often, Italian politicians repeat the mantra that “The US have 5 times our population and yet they have nearly half our MPs” (which, again at face value is true).

Now: I haven’t fully decided how I will vote at the referendum (that is, assuming that the Italian Consulate in London manages to send me my postal ballot in time — wouldn’t be the first time they don’t…); and I think most likely that will be quite irrelevant, because for once this seems like a referendum that will be decided on a massive majority (polls seem to indicate this will be a shoe in). Still, I thought I’d look a bit more into the numbers to see if I can find something to make up my mind…

So I used the data available (restricted to the countries in Europe, which I think are more comparable to Italy) and plotted the actual ratio of MPs per 1,000,000 population. The graph here shows that in reality, Italy is not quite an outlier… Germany does have what appears to be a more efficient system (well, if the metric is fewer MPs per 1,000,000 people…), with a much lower value (9.6 to the Italian 15.4).

But: Germany is a Federal state, which means that the regional parliaments do have much more power and, arguably, implies that the national parliament can be smaller (as representation formally happens at the two layers). Italy has its hybrid form of federalism (which means that regions have some independence, but not nearly as much as States in Federal Germany — or the US, for that matter…). France and Spain, which (arguably?) can be considered to be the closest countries to Italy do have ratios that are highly comparable to the Italian one.

Like I said, I’m still not sure and certainly there is more to this story in determining the underlying rationale for the referendum; but I’m also inclined to think that perhaps the problem is not so much in the number of MPs. Rather their quality. Or may be I’m missing something obvious…

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