Matteo Renzi was roundly defeated in a referendum to change Italy’s constitution, marking a major victory for anti-establishment and rightwing parties and plunging the eurozone’s third largest economy into political chaos.
“My experience in government ends here … I did all I could to bring this to victory,” Renzi said. “If you fight for an idea, you cannot lose.”
It was a not an unexpected defeat but it was nevertheless a humiliating one, with 59.1% of Italians voting against the proposed reforms, which would have made sweeping changes to Italy’s constitution and parliamentary system. Pointing to the high voter turnout – 65% of eligible voters cast ballots in the referendum – Renzi said the vote represented a “feast of democracy”.
The euro fell to a 20-month low against the dollar.
The 20-point margin was a major victory for the populist Five Star Movement, which led opposition to the reform, and the xenophobic Northern League. The parties are not traditional allies but locked arms to take on Renzi in the hope – now realised – of driving him out of office. Weeks ago both party leaders, Beppe Grillo and Matteo Salvini, were exuberant in the face of Donald Trump’s victory in the US, with Grillo claiming it represented a big “fuck you” to the political establishment.
Indeed, just moments after the exit polls established that Renzi was heading to an embarrassing loss, Salvini took to Twitter to heap praise on Marine Le Pen, Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, and “La Lega”, as the Northern League is known.
The victory for no could have profound consequences for Italy and will probably rattle European and global markets because of concerns about the country’s economic future and evident support of populist and Eurosceptic parties. It may also prompt worries about plans by a consortium of banks to rescue Banca Monte dei Paschi of Siena, as some investors said they feared that a victory for no could destabilise the banking sector.
The result will be seen as a clear rejection by voters of establishment politics in favour of populist and anti-immigrant forces, much as the UK’s vote in June to leave the European Union and the election last month of Donald Trump in the US were. But that could be an oversimplification of the results. Many voters interviewed by the Guardian in the weeks leading up to the vote – including those who said they were to the left of Renzi and not supporters of Grillo or Salvini – expressed concern about the proposed changes to the constitution. The proposed reforms, in effect, neutered the senate and would have given much more power to Renzi and future prime ministerThe prime minister, who started his political career as the mayor of Florence and was the youngest-ever prime minister when he assumed office in 2014, made constitutional reform a central plank of his premiership and argued for months that the changes would make Italy more stable and likely to adopt tough-but-needed economic and labour policies.
But the prime minister did not overcome the steep decline in his own popularity and the mistrust of voters who were disappointed that he could not or did not do more to improve the economy and cut unemployment. For many the plebiscite ultimately became a vote of no confidence in the premier. Renzi’s personality – jovial but verging on arrogance – made him seem far removed from the worries of ordinary Italians, some said.
Strong voter turnout in pockets of northern Italy, especially Lombardy and Veneto, where the Northern League has high levels of support, suggests voters may also have been sending the government a message on the immigration crisis. Renzi has always defended his government’s position on the moral necessity of rescuing thousands of migrants on the Mediterranean, even as he has said that Italy could not cope with the issue without more help from Europe.
Renzi’s decision to step down – as he said he would – means it will fall to President Mattarella to try to cobble together a new government with the agreement of the country’s largest parties, including Silvio Berlusconi’s conservative Forza Italia. The immediate task facing the current government – with or without Renzi – will be to pass a change in the electoral law that will make it far more difficult for either the Five Star Movement or the Northern League to win strong majorities in the parliament in the next election. While Berlusconi was vehemently opposed to the referendum and Renzi, the former premier has a vested interest in making sure those electoral reforms are passed and could align himself with the Democratic party to ensure that it happens, just as he has in the past
Pier Carlo Padoan, the current finance minister, has been touted as a possible replacement for Renzi, as has Italy’s culture minister, Dario Franceschini. But the young guns of the Five Star Movement, including Luigi di Maio, have made clear that they will call for a swift election even before the electoral law is changed, creating intense pressure for Mattarella.
While some see the potential rise of either the Five Star Movement or the Northern League – which are both anti-EU – as a sign that Italy could try to pull out of the eurozone, some analysts have downplayed that possibility. An exit from the euro would be exceedingly complicated and – while Euroscepticism is clearly on the rise – there is no clear political consensus to leave the single currency.
Andrea Liberati, an M5S official in Umbria, said the populist party’s biggest objection to the reform was that it would have given Renzi more power. Indeed, another top M5S member had called the authors of the reform the “serial killers” of Italy’s future.
“The Five Star Movement has stayed close to the people, we hear their voice. It’s as if the current governors all live in grand palaces – they don’t listen any more,” said Liberati.
In Orvieto, dual Italian-American national Steve Brenner, who owns a hotel in Rome, said he voted no because he did not believe the proposed changes to the constitution would deliver a more efficient or smaller government. “The biggest problem for me in Italy is a lack of faith in government,” Brenner said. “That undermines everything and it’s what makes governments unstable. To increase faith in government, we don’t need a constitutional reform. We need the government to show they are public servants, there for the betterment of all, not just for their own comfort and greed.”