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Italy’s referendum: a leader under pressure


Italy’s referendum: a leader under pressure

Prime Minister Renzi had staked his career on the upcoming vote. Now he’s backtracking in a bid to save his reform agenda…and possibly his career.

A long-awaited constitutional referendum will take place in Italy at the end of November. Despite Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s recent backtracking on a promise to resign if the referendum fails, the future stability of Italian politics is at stake.

The referendum will be a defining moment for the young, dynamic Renzi, who has staked his leadership and reform agenda on passing the constitutional reform bill. The prime minister’s referendum proposal seeks to create a more efficient parliamentary system by limiting the legislative powers of the upper house and stopping parties in the lower house from forming large, convoluted coalitions.

These reforms are targeted at producing more responsive, effective, and stable governance. However, the prime minister has put himself in the firing line by promising to step down if the referendum is not passed. While Renzi would not be legally obliged to resign, the failure of the vote would make it near impossible for him to remain in office. By failing to deliver promised change, the prime minister would forfeit his legitimacy as a leader, and undermine his image as a reformist. As a young leader of a historically tumultuous country – both politically and economically – Renzi provides many Italians with the hope that their country can make real progress. If the referendum is passed, the prime minister’s position will be secure until general elections in 2018. Until then, he will be able to lead Italy into a new era of constitutional change, something unheard of since the abolition of the Italian monarchy in 1946.


Matteo Renzi’s political rise, underwritten by a pledge to steady the ship, has been meteoric; in just five years Mr Renzi has transitioned from mayoral candidate to prime minister. Since coming to power in 2014, he has overseen measures to end a three-year recession, stabilise the economy, boost investor confidence, and kick-start much-needed labour market reforms. His political ascent has been characterised by a program of progressive, liberal policies that promise to rejuvenate a country that craves socio-political change.

However, Renzi’s career could be jeopardised by the growing trend towards right-wing populism in Europe, which has also begun to gain influence in Italy. Situated along the central Mediterranean route, Italy has faced a major influx of migrants over the past two years, particularly from war-torn countries in the Middle East and Africa. Renzi has had to handle these issues delicately in order not to alienate the country’s conservatives, many of whom hold anti-migrant sentiments.

As an anti-establishment populist party, the Five Star Movement (M5S) – led by Beppe Grillo – embodies this trend towards Euroscepticism. M5S demonstrated its rise to prominence when it won mayoral elections in Turin and Rome in June. M5S’ greatest strength is that it does not have a clear ideology. Rather, its success has revolved around its drive to root out traditional vested interests in Italian politics, which have allowed corruption to flourish for years. As a relatively young populist movement, M5S is more flexible and responsive to public opinion than the ruling Democratic Party. If popular sentiment shifts, so too will the Five Star message. The Movement’s recent electoral success – most notably in Turin, which the Democratic Party has consistently held for 16 years – suggests that Renzi is losing momentum. Recent opinion polls confirm this; the Democratic Party’s public support hovers at around 29.8 per cent, marginally below M5S’ 30.6 per cent.


As one of the European Union’s founding members, Italians, like many others, are asking serious questions about their future role in the bloc. An ousting of Renzi – a firm believer in the EU – might not lead to a Brexit-type scenario for Italy, but would give Italian Eurosceptics a louder dissenting voice, and a great opportunity to put their populist rhetoric into practice. His anti-EU opponents to the political right such as the Northern League Party are, to Renzi’s benefit, in disarray. Despite M5S’ scepticism towards the EU, M5S is distinct from right-wing parties for having more inter-party unity and broader public support. Worryingly, although Italian polling figures currently show that 58 per cent view the EU favourably, there has been a 6 per cent drop in positive public opinion since June. The public’s unfavourable view currently sits at 39 per cent.

Despite his recent attempts to backtrack, Renzi’s promise to resign could inspire his opponents to jointly campaign against him on their shared anti-EU and anti-immigration platform in the lead-up to the general election in 2018. While other parties are in disarray M5S’ support base has strengthened. Alessandro di Battista – a senior leader of the Movement – is currently touring the country on an ‘I say no’ campaign against the referendum, with over 1.2 million supporters flocking to see him. Ultimately, the outcome of the referendum will be used to gauge the Movement’s strength, relative to Renzi’s Democratic Party.

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As the referendum begins to resemble a national election, Brexit is likely to be weighing heavily on Renzi’s mind. The prime minister finds himself in circumstances similar to those faced by David Cameron, who staked his reputation and leadership on the outcome of his country’s referendum. However, Cameron’s referendum – which effectively decided Britain’s place in the world – was far more significant; by contrast Renzi’s all-or-nothing gamble on a relatively less significant vote seems unnecessary, and brash.

Brexit demonstrated the willingness of referendum voters to use a plebiscite to express their views on the country’s leaders, or on issues other than the proposal at hand. This means that Italians may simply feel they are voting for or against Renzi. The prime minister has himself to blame for this: by staking his political future on the outcome of the vote, he inadvertently made the vote about his leadership, rather than strictly about constitutional change. Although Mr Renzi has backtracked on this pledge in recent weeks, his political opponents are unlikely to forget as the referendum nears.

While Italians may or may not feel personally vested in constitutional reform – which does not inspire the same avid public interest as a general election – their vote is nonetheless important. Interest will, however, be piqued in other politically restive EU countries, where the effects of a failed vote in Italy could inspire Eurosceptics to strongly dissent against their own political establishments.

Despite a vote on a seemingly innocuous constitutional reform bill, the ripple effects are clear: constitutional reform, EU integration, and political leadership are all at stake.

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