Over the last two days Italians braved the rising Coronavirus case numbers to vote in a crucial referendum on proposals to reduce the number of representatives in the national parliament by a third. It had passed through both chambers of Parliament earlier this year, the results now show a decisive majority of the Italian public in favour of reform. A total of 69.64% of the votes were for the “Yes” camp and the cuts to the legislature will now become law after the current parliament has elapsed and a new one is elected.

Italy’s Constitution of 1947 has always been a closely guarded document, given its context of a post-War avowal to prevent a return to the Fascist era. Nevertheless, campaigns for reform are long-standing, and this referendum’s proposal was broadly supported by most parties, including the governing coalition comprising the Five Star Movement (M5s) and the centre-left Democratic Party (Pd). M5s leader Luigi di Maio calls this an “historic” result, while Pd chief Nicola Zingaretti has promised the constitutional change will be the first of a “season of reforms” to the country’s political system.

In many ways the “Yes” vote is being seen as an endorsement of the current government, even if some of the sentiments behind it verge on the anti-political. (Many Italians view politics as a “gravy train” which could do with fewer participants.) The M5s itself won power in 2018 by appealing to widespread disillusionment, but it is difficult for a party with such antagonistic origins to portray itself as a positive governing force. Manuela Perrone from newspaper Il sole 24 ore has said that the referendum result could therefore be a turning point for the M5s itself: suddenly the party has something to show for its time in government, even if the established Pd have been proposing similar reforms for years.

All of this leaves Italian politicians with some difficult questions. Firstly, should there be fresh national elections to bring the new reform into law as soon as possible, or should the country wait until the scheduled vote in 2023? Parliamentarians are also due to appoint a new Head of State in 2022. Under the current law, the President of the Republic is elected by all parliamentarians as well as around sixty regional delegates. Federico Fornaro of the left-wing Free and Equal party (Leu) has noted that the dramatic cut in parliamentarians now adds a potentially unfair weight to these regional delegates, whose number remains untouched by the reform. Thankfully, this will probably not need to be passed before the 2022 appointment, but it is an imbalance that must be addressed following the “Yes” vote.

More controversially, the distribution of Parliamentary seats throughout the country will have to change. Northern region Lombardy is set to lose almost forty deputies whereas southern Basilicata may only lose three, for example.

There are also calls for a new electoral law to accompany the changes. Italy’s current electoral law – the Rosatellum, named after its writer Ernesto Rosato – is seen as extremely complicated, allowing for some seats to be elected as first-past-the-post and others through directly proportional representation. Senior Pd figures would like to change this to full proportional representation with a minimum threshold of 5%, which will be met with strong opposition from the right as well as smaller parties. The feeling that reform is in the air could finally provide a time to pursue this path, although it would be a lengthy and fierce battle.

It is clear that the referendum leaves many questions unanswered. That Italians have backed reform is historic in itself, but the change must be accompanied by a rebalancing of other constitutional issues, otherwise it will be nothing but a vain gesture which will achieve little.

Patrick Graney is a freelance journalist with an interest in Italian politics and culture.