Italy’s Populists: Don’t Cry Victory Too Early

Italy’s rejection of constitutional reforms should not be conflated with the global rise of populism. 

December 6, 2016

By: Giovanna De Maio

Accepting a challenge also means accepting the risk of defeat. Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s decision to peg the legitimacy of his government to the result of Italy’s constitutional referendum demonstrates the political costs of such a gamble. While the “no” result has important implications for Italy’s future, it is crucial not to conflate Renzi’s forthcoming resignation with the rise of populism and authoritarianism worldwide. This referendum was concerned with abolishing perfect bicameralism and improving legislative efficiency, not the fate of the euro or leaving the EU.

The reform itself was complicated and left room for uncertainty due to the absence of a concrete proposal about how to elect members to the senate. It is impossible to dig into details of the Italian legislative system here. However, it is important to recognize that many Italians support reforming burdensome political structures in general, but did not agree with the unclear formatting of the proposed change. As a result, many supporters of Renzi’s Democratic Party (PD) found themselves in disagreement with the wording of the proposed reform, putting themselves in an awkward position vis-a-vis the prime minister.

Renzi repeatedly promised that he would resign in the case of a “no” result, personalizing what on paper appeared to be a nuanced, if not dry, constitutional debate.  From this moment, it was easy for opposition parties to call for a “no” vote. Unfortunately, many Italians voted  to express their displeasure with Renzi, paying little attention to the original matter at hand.

This political wager was taken by individual choice, as Renzi was not constitutionally obliged to put the reform to popular vote. Italian law does not require a referendum unless a parliamentary majority fails to be met or 1/5 of the members of one chamber, 500,000 voters or five regional assemblies request it. However, the prime minister did not wait for the opposition to raise the issue and pushed for a popular mandate.

Is the result and Renzi’s resignation a victory for populism and euro-skepticism in Italy? While a vast majority of those who voted “yes” were undoubtedly pro-Renzi, it not possible to ascribe such unity to the “no” camp, which was comprised of PD supporters and those who simply did not agree with the reform as worded. This is not to say that populist factors were not at play within this group, but one should be careful how much weight is ascribed to them.

The term of the current government is scheduled to end in 2018. Renzi’s resignation could either be filled with a technical government appointed by Italy’s president, or an early vote. In the latter case, the picture might not necessarily be gloomy for Renzi and PD’s political future.

Despite the mistake to attach the referendum to his mandate, Renzi still gathered more than 40% of votes, while opposition parties combined reached less than 60%. Even with this clear result, those exulting that they finally “sent Renzi home,” may not be as victorious as the headlines indicate. In the case of early elections it will not be easy to repeat this performance. The “no” vote gathered heterogenous forces, none of which is able to govern on its own, especially the populist Five Star Movement (M5S), which by nature does not ally with other parties. Creating the next government will require at least some bargaining that would likely be seen by the M5S base as making untenable concessions.

Meanwhile, those worrying that a Brexit-like decision looms on the horizon, should note that Article 75 of the Constitution prohibits referendums on international obligations. Also, it is presumptuous to conclude that a significant majority of “no” votes were cast by euro-skeptics. Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right Forza Italia, and even some parts of M5S do not hold euro-skeptic sympathies, for example. The only major party categorically against the EU is the Northern League, but it does not hold the power to govern alone, given its limited appeal outside of northern Italy.

Despite the shock of Renzi’s departure, the fact that a poorly written and hurried constitutional reform was avoided should not be viewed as entirely negative. After all, strong and well-conceived institutions are much better to weather the populist storm than the fates of individual leaders.  

Giovanna De Maio is a Visiting Researcher at CGI and a PhD candidate in international relations at L’Orientale University in Naples, Italy. 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not reflect the position of the affiliated organizations or the Center on Global Interests.


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