November 2016 – ITALY – Many have touted the French presidential election in early 2017 as the next test, after the upsets of Brexit and Donald Trump, of whether Western voters will continue to scorn establishment politics in favor of uncertain futures. In fact, Italy’s constitutional referendum on December 4 could mark the next big shakeup in one of the world’s ten biggest economies.
Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has staked his country’s future and his own career on the hope that the majority of Italians will back his gambit to reduce instability and political deadlock in Rome with a “Yes” vote. The exact measures of the referendum are complicated (indeed one Italian start-up, ProntoPro, is now offering an ‘explanation service’ to undecided voters), but simply put, it would reduce the number of legislators and rights of the upper house, the Senate, and give more power to the executive.
“Even if you change a comma in a law, it has to go back to the other chamber,” said Franco Pavoncello, president and professor of political science at John Cabot University in Rome, in an interview with DW. “The country has been struggling with this for decades.” On the surface, the choice appears simple: vote “Yes” to back the ruling center-left Democratic Party (PD) and reduce political bloat, or vote “No” to stick it to the establishment and keep the executive from consolidating power.
But by vowing to step down should “No” prevail, Renzi has conflated constitutional change and support for his premiership. And although he has confused voters in recent weeks by first walking back from, and then doubling down on this promise, “the likelihood is quite high,” according to Pavoncello, that a defeated Renzi would not remain in the Palazzo Chigi for long. “He has turned it from a constitutional moment into a political one, and that is quite unfortunate,” the professor said.
Opinion polls show an average lead of 5-8 points for the No vote. A high share of undecided voters though means the prime minister and his aides are still hoping to mount a comeback in the final stage of the campaign. If Mr. Renzi is defeated, his political career will not be the only casualty of the vote. Since taking office, the Italian prime minister has been a proxy for the country’s willingness to embrace change through reforms of its gridlocked political system and sclerotic economy. A loss could spell the end of that agenda. There are also mounting concerns that a victory for the No camp could trigger a loss of investor confidence in the eurozone’s third-largest economy, hurting appetite for its government debt and further damaging its struggling banks.
But after Britain’s vote to leave the EU in June and Donald Trump’s upset victory in the US presidential election this month, the Italian referendum has been loaded with additional significance. Some see it as the next battleground in the struggle unfolding between the moderate, liberal, center and the increasingly successful populist forces across western democracies — with Mr. Renzi as the next domino to fall. “It could be another watershed moment for Europe so there is huge interest and attention,” says Andrea Montanino, director of the global business and economics program at the Atlantic Council. “Renzi is considered an anchor in a very complex picture.” –DW