Politics gets personal for Renzi

By Mattia Guidi
20 October 2016
Italy Italy
As the world awaits the outcome of Italy’s referendum on constitutional reform, the prime minister’s personal fate could also be hanging in the balance
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The referendum on the constitutional reform finally approved by the Italian parliament last April, to be held on 4 December, is getting worldwide attention. Commentators believe that the results of the referendum could have significant repercussions not only on the Italian political landscape, but on Europe as well. In Italy the vote has inevitably turned into a furious struggle between Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and his opponents, both within and outside the Democratic party (PD). In Europe, there is growing concern about the risk that a no vote (a defeat for Renzi) could trigger political and economic instability in Italy, in a moment of uncertain growth prospects and increasing divergences among EU policymakers.

Renzi is on the front line, and it could not be otherwise. In January 2016, when the reform had not yet been approved but it seemed to enjoy large popular support (between 60 per cent and 70 per cent of the voters), Renzi provocatively stated: “If I lose the referendum, I quit politics”. By the time the reform got finally approved in April, all Renzi’s opponents realised that the referendum could be transformed in a big vote on the prime minister, not (just) on the reform. The political mobilisation of all opposition parties (Italian Left, Five Star Movement [M5S], Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, Northern League, rightwing Brothers of Italy) shows how all are trying to seize the opportunity.

Renzi also has problems in his own party. Most of the internal leftwing opposition has long demanded changes to the electoral system, in exchange for supporting the constitutional reform. Renzi’s response, until this summer, had always been to refuse. Then, something changed. People inside the party, and influential advisers (former head of state Giorgio Napolitano above all), suggested Renzi  change his attitude before it was too late. This had a double effect: on the one hand, Renzi admitted he had made a mistake in linking his personal political destiny to the reform, and claimed he would not raise the question further; on the other, he accepted to start discussing amendments to the electoral system.

However, these moves have not changed the main actors’ strategies for the time being. Despite claiming that he would avoid personalising the campaign, Renzi is travelling across Italy to support a yes vote, as he is in practice the only political leader that has not sided with the no side (leaders of small parties that support the government in parliament can hardly appeal the voters). Because of this, personalisation seems to be unavoidable for the prime minister. And indeed, the personalisation against Renzi is a distinctive trait of the the no camp. Although there are ideological reasons which explain the anti-reform stance of several actors on that side (especially the left and M5S, which are traditionally against majoritarian democracy), there are also parties which previously voted in favour of the constitutional changes before shifting their stance to oppose it (Forza Italia), and prominent figures (like former prime ministers Massimo D’Alema and Mario Monti) who have embraced a critical judgement on the reform only lately.

When it comes to changes in the electoral system, everything inevitably depends on the results of the referendum. Until the vote, no one in the opposition is willing to negotiate with Renzi, for obvious reasons. This means that the law will not change before the referendum, and that a relevant part of the PD minority will vote against the referendum. Though the electoral system looks sure to change eventually, the direction of this change depends on the referendum’s outcome.

In the case of a yes vote in the referemum, Renzi will be in a strong position and will make only small concessions to other political parties (and to his minority). Should the no side prevail, Renzi (despite what he says now) might resign, and the new electoral system will likely reflect the choice of the voters: a step away from majoritarian democracy and in favour of maintaining the status quo: the peculiar Italian bicameralism that gives both chambers the power to vote on every bill and on the government’s confidence.

Should the constitutional system be preserved by the voters, chances of a new reform are pretty low, as opponents of this one range from leftwing champions of consensus democracy to rightwing fans of presidentialism. The constitution would probably remain as it is for many years. In such a scenario, it would probably be wise to acknowledge that attempts to make Italy more majoritarian have failed. A return to proportional representation could be the most likely outcome at that point.