The ongoing scandals involving political parties and the political class have become so endemic to Italian democracy that its credibility has be undermined.
The issue is even more serious when we consider that over time, political parties have strayed away from their original jurisdiction and occupied every niche of the public sector. They are empowered to oversee candidacies and appointments to top institutional positions; they hand-pick the Board of Directors of both large and small public companies; they decide the policies of the country; and have a hand in the hefty spending of public money, disguised first as public financing and now as electoral expense reimbursement.
This is why a PARTY REFORM is imperative.
Article no.49 of the Italian Constitution touches upon this issue: “Any citizen has the right to freely establish parties to contribute to determining national policies through democratic processes.”
This only tells us that, for the constituent, the political parties are free and democratic associations made up of citizens. The other two articles of the Italian constitution related to article no.49 (articles 18 and 98) do not delve further into detail. Article 18 concerns the right to association, while article 98 imposes limitations on party memberships. The cautiousness embedded within the Constitution need not come as a surprise – when it was written, one of the priorities was undoubtedly to safeguard the freedom of political parties, and not interfere in their internal regulating power.
Today, amid a whole new context, regulating political parties can no longer be put off. At the same time, there are also groups which come under private law, such as foundations which, in order to be legally recognised, must get through some heavy red tape, and only after this can they be enrolled on the local registry of legal entities. It is unclear why this should not also apply to political parties who, on the one hand, serve an important role in society, while on the other enjoy generous amounts of public funds.
It goes without saying that it is not easy to establish limitations, besides the fact that the hand of the law intervening in a political party’s organization could jeopardize its autonomy and have indirect ramifications on the party’s ideological identity. But, this cannot encroach on a citizen’s right to demand that public funds be allocated only to political parties under law.
Naturally, it would seem naïve to think that a law based on article no.49 could provide the solution to every perversity of the party system. Bylaws and rules cannot singlehandedly guarantee better or more moral political parties. Nonetheless, by enforcing certain obligations, lawmakers can achieve at least two things. They can monitor the parties to ensure that a democratic system is upheld, which would encourage the citizens to be more active in politics, as advocated by the Constitution. It would also help to achieve greater transparency in the management of political parties, by making election reimbursements and any other form of public financing in compliance with legislative obligations. But it must not be compulsory. Our proposition is that parties must be allowed to choose whether or not to submit to the legislative provisions, as they will be knowledgeable that it would condition the right to make use of public funding.
Things have moved in this direction in recent years, with law decree no.149 of 28 December 2013, thereafter changed to law no.13 of 21 February 2014 concerning: “The abolition of direct public financing – provisions on transparency and democracy of political parties, and regulation of voluntary and indirect contributions for financial support.”
The norm marks a huge step forward, but it focuses mainly on abolishing election reimbursements, something that was roundly demanded by the public as retribution for increasingly ineffective politics. But the parties’ real leverage lies elsewhere, namely in their power to appoint roles, something which has not been regulated in the very least. The obligations for democratic practices within the party, law no.13, falls short on this aspect, as it merely imposes formal boundaries on democratic decision-making.
The situation calls for greater action. We have put forward our proposal in a publication compiling the European recommendations for this matter, particularly those of the Group of States against Corruption (GRECO).
Some of our ideas have been incorporated into a Law Bill, but more must be done if parties are to be revolutionised, politics shielded from corruption, and a fully functioning democratic system established.
Promulgating a law based on article no.49 could also be the opportunity to transfigure the governing class. For example, looking at the political parties’ clear inability for self-amendment, lawmakers could incorporate into the party bylaws a maximum number of terms for an elected position (i.e. no more than three), even if inconsecutive. This does not only result in new incumbents, but would also have positive effects for the moral aspect, as the turnover would reduce the likelihood of clientelism, especially in high positions.
The disincentives, naturally, will play an essential role. The parties that concede exceptions to term-limitations should be excluded from any election reimbursement. This means that the law would require the delegation of an autonomous watchdog. The periodic publication of the inspection results on the web would automatically entail in a further disincentive – the loss of voter approval.
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