The No vote in the Italian referendum had nothing to do with populism and everything to do with Matteo Renzi

The No side mobilised people on the left and the right; populists and anti-populists; members of the liberal elite and those in less exalted circumstances

James Newell
Monday 05 December 2016 11:03 GMT
Italian PM Matteo Renzi resigns after referendum defeat

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Like Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, the outcome of the Italian referendum has been a great surprise, but for the opposite reason: polls suggested that the result would be very close and instead there has been a decisive and unequivocal result: on a very high 68 per cent turnout, Italians have turned their backs on the proposed constitutional reforms by 60 per cent to 40 per cent.

Let us be clear: this has been no “anti-establishment, populist revolt”. The division between Yes and No cross-cut the usual political and social divisions. The No side mobilised people on the left and the right; populists and anti-populists; members of the liberal elite and those in less exalted circumstances. Renzi was no establishment figure, to the contrary: he sought to sell his proposed reforms as part of a campaign to sweep away vested interests. His appeals – to reduce the powers of the Senate, to reduce the costs of politics, to cut the number of parliamentarians – were all couched in classic populist terms.

The sheer size of the No vote discredits simplistic interpretations of the outcome as yet another expression of populist fervour. Rather, the vote was the expression of a range of different types of No: a No to the specific constitutional reforms being proposed; a No to the political elites in general; a No to the current economic and social malaise; above all a No to the Renzi government. For Renzi some months ago had staked his entire future on the outcome by framing the vote as a plebiscite on him and his executive.

So not withstanding his subsequent attempts to row back from this position, a referendum on his premiership is de facto what this vote has been. It was a vote that pitted against all-comers a prime minister who had been able to govern because there had been no alternative – a prime minister opposed on one side by the centre right, on the other side by the Five-star Movement (M5s), neither of which would have anything to do with the other. Now that this ‘rag bag’ of forces (to use Renzi’s own expression) has been able to come together in a straightforward yes-or-no contest Renzi has – for the moment – been ousted from power.

This afternoon, Renzi will travel to the presidential palace to tender his resignation. The President will consult the political parties to establish the prospects for the existing, or a new government, to command a parliamentary majority. He may then invite Renzi to return to Parliament to verify, through confidence votes, that the existing government has the necessary support to carry on. He may confer on Renzi a mandate to form a new government. He may confer a mandate to form a government on someone else – either a spokesperson of one of the political parties or else a ‘technocrat’ who would have a specific remit, in this case to secure parliamentary approval for a new electoral law, before the holding of fresh elections.

A continuation of the Renzi experience is not to be ruled out; for his political capital has not been entirely depleted, to the contrary. He leads an increasingly “personalised” and “presidentialised” party. And if the No vote belongs entirely to none of his opponents, the 40 per cent that voted “Yes” belongs entirely to him. It is a vote share that corresponds exactly to the proportion he won at the European elections of 2014, hailed as a great victory for his party. His problem would be holding together his coalition with the small centre parties with only fourteen months of the legislature to run.

The referendum outcome means that the Chamber’s electoral law must be revisited. It was introduced in July on the assumption that the constitutional reforms would pass, and will lead to chaos without them. It gives an overall majority to the list winning 40 per cent or a run-off ballot and has been seen as a gift to the M5s – though they opposed it on the grounds that it concentrated too much power in the hands of the Prime Minister. In a breath-taking volte-face, the M5s are now saying they want immediate elections based on the law as it stands. In that case the Chamber and the Senate, which will continue to have co-equal legislative powers, will almost certainly be composed very differently – a single party having a majority of seats in the Chamber but less than a majority in the Senate. So either the M5s are saying that they are willing, on their own, to assume the responsibilities of government, or that they want a governing alliance, and it is not clear which. Either way, it is an open question whether a party that draws support from across the political spectrum and has hitherto been a party of protest, would be able to remain cohesive in face of the pressures of governing. Its experience in local government does not augur well.

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