Italian referendum: ‘No’ movement puts government against wall


Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi looks set to resign after the December 4 referendum on constitutional changes he backed is projected to be defeated. Ahead of the vote, Green Left Weekly's Dick Nichols looks at the issues behind the referendum and Yes and No campaigns.


It takes a lot of social pressure to force a split in the economic elite over how best to pursue its interests. But that is what has happened in Italy as the fight about changing the country’s 1948 constitution enters its final days.

With voting on the changes to take place in a December 4 referendum, the campaign has become, according to constitutional law professor Claudio De Fiores, “the mother of all wars”.

On November 18, the last day opinion polls could be published, opponents of the proposed 47 changes to the constitution’s 139 articles held a 5%-7% lead over those, led by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who support them.

However, more than 20% of those polled said they had still to decide.

Elite split

In this situation, the Italian and European elites supporting the changes have split between those favouring one final counter-offensive and those who think it best to accept the battle is lost.

Thus, while some institutional Yes backers spent the last week of the campaign sowing rumours of a No victory bringing on bank collapses and the end of the euro, others — conscious of the impact of Brexit and Trump — were downplaying all talk of “populism” achieving its third triumph of the year.

For instance, The Economist broke ranks with a November 26 editorial titled “Why Italy should vote no in its referendum”. It belittled Renzi’s “constitutional tinkering” and told him to get Italy back on the road of “real reform”.

Likewise, former “technocrat” prime minister Mario Monti (2011-13) came out against the proposed changes in the November 25 Financial Times, but urged Renzi to stay on in case of a No win to “resume the job he has left half-finished”.

These blatant contradictions would not exist if a broad grassroots movement had not sprung up to oppose Renzi’s changes, with more than 700 local groups in Italy and abroad.

Against ‘the establishment’

In the referendum fight, every protagonist claims to be fighting “the establishment”.

Take Renzi, leader of the governing Democratic Party (PD), called “centre-left” in Italy. The 41-year-old prime minister pushed the Yes case as a crusade by a brave, young, social media-savvy outsider in a titanic struggle against the aged “caste” of corrupt politicians and bureaucrats.

For Renzi, the constitutional reform is the country’s once-in-a-lifetime chance to be able to “run at the speed of globalisation”, and to stop being taken as a joke by its European partners.

Renzi claims his constitutional package would give national government the powers to improve the lives of ordinary citizens: like earthquake survivors awaiting home reconstruction, truck drivers presently needing six permits to cross the country, and cancer patients who in some regions have to wait up to two years to get drugs. It would also enable uniform railway safety standards and a national fibre optic network.

However, the No case claims an equally “anti-establishment” banner. And not only the metalworkers’ union FIOM and the extra-parliamentary left, the self-described populist Five Star Movement and the right-wing Northern League, but even media tycoon and former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, leader of the centre-right Forza Italia.

The sleazy billionaire once named Renzi as his worthy successor. But on November 20, Berlusconi told the Quotidiano Nazionale: “Renzi is the typical example of that caste of professional politicians that he says he wants to fight.”

The proposals

Taken singularly, some of the Yes case’s proposals seem reasonable — and have been proposed for decades by both left and right. For example, there is the amendment to cut the powers of the Senate to end a system where it and the Chamber of Deputies have exactly the same prerogatives, allowing bills to bounce back and forth between them for years.

Under Renzi’s plan, the Senate would become a house of review, cut from 315 to 100 members and unable to bring down governments with motions of no confidence.

If this were all that were being proposed, the referendum would probably win. A large-sample survey showed overwhelming support — including from a majority of No supporters — for cutting the number of politicians living sumptuously in Rome.

Another proposal that might win on its own would be more opportunities for citizens’ initiative bills.

However, these changes form only part of a package that voters will vote to accept or reject as a whole. The package also includes a proposal that even a majority of Yes voters oppose: the Senate would no longer be directly elected, but formed by representatives of regional government through a process that is still to be specified.

More important than any specific measure is the fact that the full impact of Renzi’s package cannot be measured separately from Italy’s highly undemocratic new electoral law. 

This creates a two-round system, with any party winning 40% on the first round being assigned 54% of the seats in the 630-seat Chamber. In the likely case that no party wins 40%, this bonus would go to the winner of a run-off ballot between the two lists with most first round votes.

With support for Italy’s main political blocs now running at around 30% for the PD and its allies, 30% for the Five Star Movement and 25%-30% for the presently divided centre-right (Forza Italia, Brothers of Italy and Northern League), this electoral law would mean that a bloc with under 30% of the vote could end up with a majority of seats — and be guaranteed government for five years (barring internal splits).

That is not just a theoretical possibility. In the 2013 general Italian election, run under an even worse version of the same type of election law (later found to be unconstitutional), the ruling bloc around the PD won 54.7% of the seats with 29.55% of the vote.

Well-known Italian judge Luigi Ferrajoli said: “A win for the Yes case when coupled with the new electoral law would ratify the transformation of our parliamentary democracy into a system completely centered on the executive.”

This is the weakest point in the Yes case and has led to Renzi making noises about again reforming the election law.

Finally, there is the method used to bring about the referendum, which according to London School of Economics professor of public policy Valentino Larcinese “deserves to be rejected in itself and independently of the content of the reform”.

Renzi placed the constitutional changes before the Italian people by having them passed six times through the Senate and Chamber by a majority elected under an unconstitutional electoral law, as well as by “inducing” members of non-PD parliamentary groups to support them.

Tackling the No camp

Why did Renzi adopt such methods, which have alienated people from every part of the Italian political spectrum, including a significant minority within the PD?

Two factors convinced the prime minister the time was ripe for a new assault on the constitution, seen by him and his backers as the biggest obstacle to Italy recovering “competitiveness” and reversing economic decline.

They were the intractability of the crisis itself — inviting a “shock doctrine” style campaign for a system that can “get things done” — and the prime minister’s own popularity.

Under Renzi, the PD achieved an astonishing (for Italian politics) 40.8% of the vote in the May 2014 European elections. This was more than 10% higher than the 2013 result (before Renzi was installed as PD leader and prime minister in an internal party coup).

However, two years of “reforms” have eroded support for the PD. The centerpiece of Renzi’s program, the Jobs Act, led to a 1.5 million worker-strong strike in 2014. Polling also revealed that merely mentioning that the constitutional changes had been produced by his government reduced support for them.

As a result, Renzi’s line of attack changed: the changes were good in themselves and voters who did not like him or his government should still support them. In any case, the No camp was a “rabble” whom “if you put in a room and asked to come out with an idea in common you would never see again”.

The forces supporting the No case are obviously heterogeneous. They range from the far right neo-fascist groups through all the mainstream right and centre-right parties, to a minority of the PD, the Five Star Movement and all forces to the left of the PD.

Each has their own arguments for opposing the changes, with the Northern League claiming that Renzi’s amendments will make it easier for him to flood the country with migrants, impose political correctness from Rome and trample on the regions.

The left arguments focus on democratic rights and citizen oversight of government. Their slogan at an October 22 “No Renzi Day” protest in Rome, attended by up to 40,000, was “For A Social No!”

If the No case wins, it will place big challenges before the divided Italian left as it struggles to project its agenda against that of the No case’s other supporters — the racist right.

However, the movement that has arisen to block Renzi’s plan — full of a new generation of enthusiastic activists — can provide an important basis for its sorely needed renewal.

[A much longer version can be found at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]