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State of the Left Italy

What went wrong in Italy’s referendum?

Sandro Gozi - 09 December 2016

Matteo Renzi's resignation as prime minister is a loss for progressive Europe, but this certainly isn't the end of the story

The referendum on constitutional reform of last Sunday ended up with a clear result. The Italian people went to the polls in droves (there was almost 70 per cent turnout) and they rejected the constitutional reform voted for by the parliament in a landslide: 60 to 40.

As a consequence, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi resigned, as he had always made clear that he would throughout the preceding months. Renzi’s decision is a lesson of political accountability for everyone: in a country where ‘nobody really loses’ and, above all, nobody has ever left politics after a failure, he acknowledged his defeat on constitutional reform and decided to quit. This is very unusual for Italy, but once again Renzi showed his consistency and broke away with old habits of Italian politics.

What went wrong with the vote? In my view, resistance to change clearly prevailed. But, in contrast to the Brexit vote or Donald Trump election, it cannot be seen only as an anti-establishment vote. The no vote was in fact pushed by a heterogeneous coalition of prominent members of the establishment, including many ‘has beens’ such as former prime ministers Silvio Berlusconi, Mario Monti and Massimo D'Alema (only Romano Prodi publicly endorsed the reform and the yes vote), and former party leaders such as Pierluigi Bersani. It was also promoted by other more extremist political forces such as the Northern League and the Five Star Movement, which made a short-sighted political calculation by opting for conservatism and turning away from its previous positions.

Our biggest mistake was not to succeed in focusing on the content of reform itself. In this referendum, more than in other cases, the majority of the voters decided to ignore the text and express dissatisfaction, anger and frustration with the economic and social context. As a result, the vote took the form of a ballot for or against Renzi as prime minister. 

Looking at the results, it seems undoubtable that the yes side performed very poorly among young people, the unemployed and notably in the south of Italy, confirming the north-south divide and the anger of the losers of the European austerity policies of recent times. Over the last two and a half years the Renzi government radically inverted the approach of the Monti era and pursued a reformist programme aiming at recovering Italy from the crisis. But more time is needed to display all the positive effects of these efforts: young unemployment is still high (35 per cent), and the south is still lagging behind. It is clear that a stronger social agenda and fight against increasing poverty must be the highest priorities in view of our general elections in 2017. 

However, last Sunday’s referendum remains a significant democratic test: many citizens turned out to the polls, with an important share voting yes. Taking into account the internal Democratic party opposition on the reform (we’ll draw all the necessary consequences in party discussion and at the next primaries …) the final outcome represents a solid base from which to rebuild: 12 million voters who were calling for a change. This is a base which we must focus on, consolidate and expand ahead of next elections.

On the other side, the 60 per cent of no votes consist of a bunch who have nothing in common but their resistance to change and their hate for Matteo Renzi, going from the neo-fascists to Berlusconi, from the Northern League to Beppe Grillo, and from a vast part of the establishment to the conservative leftist fringes. The no side won the referendum, but they are totally unable to come up with any consistent and alternative proposal.

What will happen now? It is hard to say so far. Due to the rejection of reform, we need to harmonise the electoral laws of the Camera dei Deputati (lower house) and Senato (upper house). It will require some time, and probably the creation of a new executive. It is likely that the new system would be more proportional rather than majoritarian: not the direction we hoped for, but a likely consequence of the rejection of the reform which will be hard to avoid. 

With the resignation of Matteo Renzi, a process for change has been temporarily stopped. But I am sure we will start again after the next general election. Europe needs someone like Renzi, who showed the necessary courage to get out of the EU status quo and push for change. His resignation is a loss for progressive Europe, but certainly it is not the end of the story. He will come back, and we will come back.

Sandro Gozi is a Democratic member of the Italian parliament and state secretary for European Affairs 

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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