Why the world is suddenly so obsessed with Italy’s constitution

Awaiting his fate.
Awaiting his fate.
Image: EPA/Giuseppe Lami
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On Dec. 4, Italians will vote in a referendum that has been compared to Brexit, despite the Italian government’s insistence that the stakes aren’t nearly as high. Indeed, unlike the UK’s in-out vote on EU membership, the Italian referendum will ask voters to approve a somewhat convoluted package of changes to the constitution, which must be put to a nationwide vote by law (the changes were initially proposed in early 2014). The reforms aim to cut costs and streamline government decision-making by clarifying the role of local legislative bodies and stripping the Senate of many of its powers, among a host of other measures.

Also, unlike Brexit, in the Italian case the government is the one lobbying for a change from the status quo, urging citizens to vote “yes” to the constitutional reforms. Opponents to the changes, meanwhile, come from a wide variety of backgrounds, including the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, far-right Northern League, former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, and many on the far left.

Why this? Why now?

Most of the disagreements about the referendum center on the reforms of the role of the Senate. Although there is a general consensus that Italy’s bicameral structure, in which the upper and lower houses hold equal power, needs to be changed, many disagree with the changes as currently proposed. Some think that the Senate should be abolished completely, instead of given a less powerful but vague new role. Others oppose the idea of a Senate where members aren’t elected, as it seems to be suggested in the proposed reforms.

On the other side, prime minister Matteo Renzi and fellow supporters of the referendum see this as the most ambitious reform of the country’s lawmaking process in a very long time. They promote it as a groundbreaking step forward in streamlining the country’s famously slow-moving bureaucracy.

But in recent months the referendum has evolved into a vote of confidence in the government, as these exercises often do, instead of an assessment of the merits of arcane constitutional tweaks. This because Renzi doubled-down on the referendum by pledging to resign in case his side lost, a move that galvanized the opposition.

All of the latest polls (link in Italian) give a narrow but clear advantage to the “no” camp:

“Renzi made a mistake in personalizing the referendum,” says Marco Castelnuovo, a political correspondent and mobile editor of Italy’s largest newspaper, Il Corriere della Sera. And so, the “no” front now includes both left-wing progressives and anti-establishment populists, anti-fascist organizations and neo-fascist ones, and other unlikely pairings.

Voting intentions by age are also unexpected. “An interesting element is that the youth is most likely to vote ‘no’,” says Castelnuovo, “so those who should be more inclined to change, and risk, and in the end see themselves in a 40-year-old prime minister are actually voting against.” Young Italians suffer from sky-high unemployment, especially in the south, and have grown frustrated with the government. This animus appears to override any feelings they might have about the suitability of the constitution.

Some are voting “no” in the referendum despite the chance it could take down the government, triggering a snap election with a highly uncertain outcome. Others reject the reforms precisely because that is a possibility. Renzi eventually admitted that putting his job on the line (link in Italian) was a mistake, hinting that his resignation may not be so automatic if the vote goes against him, though has recently confirmed (link in Italian) his plan to resign if defeated.

What’s Trump got to do with it?

As the vote approaches, the volatile global political environment has been looming larger in voters’ minds. In most polls, more than 20% of voters say they are undecided, and many of them may be influenced by what they’ve seen in Britain after the Brexit vote and, especially, America after Donald Trump’s election victory.

On the one hand, the likes of Five Star’s Beppe Grillo and Northern League’s Matteo Salvini welcomed the US vote (link in Italian) as an affirmation of the anti-establishment wave washing over western democracies, promising that Italy’s referendum will be the next “hit against globalization and revenge of brave people,” as Salvini put it. On the other, Renzi has tried to co-opt his opponents’ language by claiming that a vote in favor of the reforms is the true anti-establishment option.

For those caught in the middle, Renzi’s personalization of the vote may help swing it in his favor: some who would have otherwise voted “no” may waver, worried more about the unpredictable political aftermath after a referendum rejection than qualms about the actual constitutional reforms referenced on the ballot papers.

For them, Trump’s victory has cast the referendum as Italy’s chance to repel the populist, xenophobic wave from washing over their country, too. (Remember that Barack Obama, the outgoing leader of the world’s liberal order, honored Renzi by inviting him as the guest of honor at his final state dinner at the White House in October.)

While a “no” vote may slow down the pace of reform in Italy, what’s new? “This is an important referendum but not in the least comparable with Brexit for the consequences it could have, not the election of Trump,” notes Castelnuovo. Italian markets have been particularly calm in the run-up to the vote, despite the “no” camp’s growing lead in the polls.

“Recall that Italy has had 63 governments in 70 years,” wrote Wolfango Piccoli of Teneo Intelligence in a recent research note. “There is plenty of expertise on how to deal with a political crisis like the one that will ensue in case of a ‘no’ win.”