Italy’s referendum: a predictable defeat, but not what you think

5 December 2016
Articles and blogs
Renzi issued press statements on the outcome of the referendum in Great Britain. 2016. Palazzo Chigi via Flickr

The defeat of the YES vote in the Italian referendum was widely predicted, and for once the script did not change: Renzi lost, and lost badly.

The referendum asked Italians whether they wanted to amend the constitution to limit the powers of the upper house (the senate) and of the regional governments, among other things. The promise was more agile and less costly policy making.

The Italians said no: 60% of them in fact, which is a very significant majority by any measure. The YES campaign won in only 3 out of 20 regions: a meagre consolation prize was the confidence vote of Italians abroad, who voted for change, but to no avail.

Many commentators, especially foreign ones, are comparing the Italian NO vote to Brexit and even Trump: an anti-EU vote won by the populist right. They are wrong.

The Italian story is different in at least four ways:

1. It was a political defeat.

Renzi went it alone, with virtually no political allies. All political parties, including a big slice of his own (the Democratic Party) and all political leaders from Milan to Palermo campaigned for a NO vote.

Renzi has always had a tendency to rule in isolation, fast tracking reforms and changes through a small network of allies and – some would say- ‘friends’. This time he got it wrong and did not get away with it.  

Italians vote along party lines. He had no chance of winning this alone and he should have known better. Politics requires coalitions, allies and deals; it’s a collective endeavour, working like a choir not a one man show. For this reason alone, I think the defeat is deserved.

2. It was not an anti-EU vote.

In fact, this was very much a domestic affair. The main character was not Brussels but the much-treasured Italian constitution, its history, and the values it represents.

My British friends will have a hard time understanding this. The constitution is not only the building block of the republic, but also symbolises the end of fascism and all that it represents. Across the broad coalition that campaigned for a NO vote, there are a few anti-EU voices, namely Salvini’s Lega Nord and the improbable Beppe Grillo, our next comedian in charge: but this is a by-product of the referendum, not an intended effect.

3. It was not about the economy, or immigration.

While the campaign did not focus on these issues, Renzi is still leaving behind a country that is both stagnant, and housing a banking sector on the brink of collapse. Migration was not a central issue either.

Yet Renzi is one of the few political leaders, in Europe and the world, who has actually been doing something to address the inevitable phenomenon of migration, not only protecting refugees fleeing wars but also acknowledging the wider reality of economic migration from Africa.

Italy led the way on search and rescue in the Mediterranean sea, helped process and provide shelter to the growing number of migrants arriving from Africa, and most recently activated an innovative programme of resettlement in collaboration with mayors and local authorities.

More than anything, Renzi and his government have been a lone a reasonable voice in Brussels and beyond on the need to manage migration, instead of building walls and shutting borders. Today is a sombre day for African migrants, and for EU leaders who have thus far relied on the Italians to act for those who land on our shores every single day, and to save many lives at sea.

4. It was a vote for the status quo, not for change.

Unlike in the UK and the US, this was not an anti-establishment vote. In fact, the most vocal and visible NO campaigners are an incredible bandwagon of old, recycled, and in many ways ‘unpresentable’ characters: from Berlusconi to D’Alema, De Mita and more. Faces that we very much hoped to have confined to history are now back, and some will be in charge. Even Grillo and Salvini are not new; they have been around for years.

What is new is that they are now leaders of a broad and improbable coalition, from anti-fascist to green and populist right-wingers. I cannot see how they will be able to come together to do anything good for the country.

So, what next? In some ways, it will be business as usual: more instability and uncertainty, nothing new for Italy. Longer term it will depend on how Grillo and Salvini perform at the next general elections, though many are pointing out that the Democratic Party still holds a significant majority

But first, let’s learn a lesson or two.

Many have been saying that referenda are not a useful tool to achieve democratic change. One interesting debate that began last night on the Twittersphere is that perhaps reform and change are not easily achieved by radical constitutional overhauls. Instead, they are brought about by patient, tactical and pragmatic efforts to implement and improve the norms and policies that exist, through realistic and politically savvy action, by genuine reformers with an agenda for change. The problem is that these are in short supply in Italy right now. Those who do have a plan, please come forward.