Rome—On Sunday, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi was overwhelmingly defeated in a referendum to reform the constitution. (On Monday he handed in his resignation, which goes into effect once the budget has been passed.) The referendum, to reduce the size of the Senate and limit its powers, lost by a huge margin of 40.1 percent to 59.8, and a surprisingly robust 64 percent of those eligible went out to vote. Pre-election scare scenarios about a No result—that it would force Italy to leave the euro, as Wolfgang Münchau argued in the Financial Times; that it would severely damage Italian banks deep in bad debts, as The Wall Street Journal warned—seem to have been somewhat inflated. The day after, all was more or less well on the financial front.
But the vote, which many interpreted as a “How am I doing?” plebiscite on the prime minister himself, certainly did reveal that Italians are very unhappy with the status quo.
The victory of the No is unmistakable, but what does it mean? International commentators were quick to liken the Italian vote to the “populist” tides that powered Brexit and Donald Trump. And certainly, parties like the Five Star Movement (M5S) and the rank xenophobes of the Northern League (LN) feel they are the victors.
It’s worth remembering, though, that current polls don’t give the M5S more votes, about 30 percent, than the center-left Partito Democratico (PD). And the M5S has never made any electoral alliances. The first breakdowns of the referendum vote show that young people across Italy and southerners who bear the brunt of a long recession said No most decisively. The young writer and commentator Roberto Saviano, a southerner himself, said that “no project, no vision, no program won with the No. The No was a means, the only one Italians have had in recent years, to say, ‘Enough, stop trying to kid us, you’re not doing anything for us.’ It wasn’t a victory for the M5S, or the Lega Nord (come on!) or for Forza Italia, or for the minority of the PD always ready to find fault and then stand back and deny being dissident.”
For as Saviano notes, one of the great paradoxes of the No is that it also encompasses a part of the left—a left that in this critical moment is recklessly and foolishly divided. Much of the blame for that disunity lies with Renzi, a cocksure, scrappy 41-year-old whose personal style grates on seasoned progressives, and whose lackluster policies were shaped by European austerity rules (however much he tried to change them) as well as the need to compromise with the right because he lacked a clear majority in parliament. Even the late endorsement of the respected former prime minister and EU Commission president Romano Prodi didn’t save him. But some blame must also be assigned to the minority of dissidents within his own Partito Democratico and those in the left movement Sinistra Italiana (SI) who joined the 60 percent voting No on the referendum.
Among them was the veteran left daily Il Manifesto, sharply critical of Renzi, which ran a “NO Grazie” banner on its cover on voting day. “It’s the day of truth,” wrote editor in chief Norma Rangieri, correctly predicting that “the premier hopes for popular investiture as the big boss of national politics. But he risks a sound defeat.”