Geographies in Depth

Stop comparing Italy’s referendum to Brexit and Trump. Here’s what it’s really about

Supporters of the "No" faction for a referendum on constitutional reform hold placards in front of Chigi palace in Rome, Italy, December 5, 2016. The placard reads: " Illegal government eviction executive  " REUTERS/Tony Gentile - RTSUNC1

Almost 60% of Italians voted no in a historic referendum Image: REUTERS/Tony Gentile

Alberto Alemanno
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Almost 60% of those who voted in Italy’s referendum over the weekend said “No” to constitutional reform, marking an abrupt end to one of the most decisive reformist political moments in Italian republican history.

This comes at a critical juncture for the European Union and puts Italy at a crossroads. Given the self-congratulatory claims from Europe’s far right, it may be tempting to interpret this vote as yet another rejection of establishment politics in favour of populist and anti-immigrant forces – along the lines of the Brexit vote and the election last month of Donald Trump in the US. But a closer look at the nature and outcome of the Italian referendum reveals – as does anything coming from il Belpaese – a profoundly distinctive story.

A volunteer counts ballots for a referendum on constitutional reform at a polling station in Rome, Italy, December 4, 2016. REUTERS/Tony Gentile - RTSUMSI
Image: REUTERS/Tony Gentile

While both Brexit and Italy’s referendum have their roots in the hubris of their respective political leaders, the latter – unlike the former – must be seen first and foremost as a domestic affair.

When Italy’s outgoing Prime Minister Matteo Renzi came to power in 2014, he promptly hijacked his opponents’ populist agenda by cutting the privileges enjoyed by politicians and introducing an unprecedented reformist agenda. In a country in which the average duration of a government is less than a year, he ostentatiously promised to enact one reform per month during his first 1,000 days of government, and this without having actually been elected to do so (as his government came about through a previous political crisis, and not an election).

As a result, Renzi’s ascent to power quickly came to symbolize a long overdue renewal of Italy’s sclerotic political system. He fostered the dream of change among Italians who believed that – after decades of sluggish economic growth and limited social mobility – this government offered a once-in-a-life-time opportunity to fix a massive inter-generational failure.

It was in this spirit that, hoping to introduce greater flexibility into the labour market, Renzi did not hesitate to embark on an ideological battle with his own party and with vested interests, namely powerful trade unions, and forced through a reform. Likewise, to make sure Italian society is aligned with newly emerging values, he helped push through legislation that recognized same-sex civil unions. He also fought hard against the tangle of bureaucracy and judicial delays that block investment projects, and in doing so helped attract new investments into the country.

Emboldened by his previous achievements, he not only personalized his own political party – which, as a result, boycotted his reform plan – but also personalized the referendum, by staking his future on the vote.

Renzi’s pragmatic conception of politics as a clear mandate to deliver on a set of pre-determined objectives is relatively new in Italian politics. Paradoxically, given the number of issues that were not on the ballot but remain extremely salient with the electorate, such as high unemployment, an unresolved banking crisis, and ongoing migration crisis, Renzi’s result-obsessed government failed to stick to its own plan, and as a result, his vision was rejected en masse.

Renzi’s failure to conquer the hearts and minds of his own party’s base damaged his support with a significant section of the electorate who – especially the young and unemployed – would have otherwise backed him.

While the same trends were not seen among Italians living abroad (where the “Yes” vote won by a 25% margin), it certainly happened among those who live in the country. Results suggest that Italians, in particular the young, proved resistant to change, even if the price for their choice is instability. It does not seem to be a coincidence that those regions that voted No were also those with a big young population and high unemployment.

Yet Renzi’s political legacy is far from over and is set to outlast his reforms. His major, most disruptive idea of all – against which his legacy must be measured today – was to dare to change the way politics is perceived and conducted in Italy’s gerontocratic culture of government.

While the dual personalization of the party and the referendum proved misplaced, Renzi and his government showed that it is not only legitimate to attempt to reform the country, but that it is also a moral duty for his generation (and those that follow) to do so by defying the status quo.

To bet on the country’s desire to rapidly modernize without accompanying this bold reformist stance with a pedagogical, inclusive action turned out to be a mistake, but a mistake others in the future might learn from.

In the meantime, a new caretaker government will – in line with Italy’s long tradition of technocratic administration – bridge the country to the next elections, by designing a new and more broadly accepted electoral law. By then new world views will possibly emerge, compete and fight to reform the country – possibly starting from the outgoing government’s worthy attempts.

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