Why Matteo Renzi should vote no in the Italy referendum

Italian PM Matteo Renzi has perhaps not contemplated that a yes vote on the referendum can be to his detriment.

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi
Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, left, during the recording of the Rai TV programme Porta a Porta, November 30 [EPA]

A referendum should be nothing to be worried about. It is a democratic procedure, an expression of the people’s power and will.

However, after the “surprise” Donald Trump victory and Brexit, the international media is increasingly filled with worry about the December 4 Italian referendum.

The complicated constitutional reform proposed by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi aims to simplify the legislation process and to recentralise power, assuring more stability to the parliamentary majority. This sounds reasonable, so why so much alarmism?

Apocalyptic scenarios

The vote on December 4 is not only about the referendum itself. Since Renzi announced he would resign if the outcome of the vote is a “no”, all the opposition parties aligned against his proposal. And not only the opposition but also a consistent minority in his own party.

He was popular back then, but now the polls are looking bleak: his approval declined dramatically, and the latest opinion polls show a consistent advantage for the “no” position.

For many, like an editor of the Financial Times, this would lead to an apocalyptic scenario, even an Italexit: if Renzi leaves office, the subsequent power vacuum would present electoral opportunities to parties intending to leave the European Union, such as the Lega Nord (an Italian version of France’s National Front) and the Five Stars Movement, led by the former comedian Beppe Grillo.

Or since this instability would make Italy even less attractive for international investors, it would be fatal for the already tottery balance of some of Italy’s banks and its economy in general.

But optimism seems to survive on the yes front. At the end of the day, the game is not yet over. A consistent part of the electorate resolutely abstains, others are still unsure, and polls are not always trustworthy prophets.

If this constitutional reform is accepted, the winner of the next elections does not necessarily go by the name of Matteo Renzi


Renzi recently won the support of renowned International politicians and economists – such as the US President Barack Obama and the German Federal Minister of Finance, Wolfgang Schauble – who all believe that these reforms offer Italy a great opportunity to speed up its rusty bureaucracy and become more stable, agile and competitive in Europe.

For Barclays and Credit Suisse analysts, even a victory for no would not have catastrophic consequences, since they expect the European Central Bank is willing to help Italy, even in the event of a monetary crisis.

In particular, this last position shows that the no front is not so homogenous as many alarmists (and Renzi at one point) want us to believe.

It is important to emphasise that there are people campaigning for a no vote other than Beppe Grillo, Matteo Salvini, Silvio Berlusconi (yes, he is still there) and other populists. Some of them just want to protest against or show their disappointment with the prime minister.

Renzi at the centre

Two and a half years ago, at the beginning of his mandate, Renzi presented himself as “the demolition man”, the one to liberate the country from the “political cast” and elites. Now, a large part of his former supporters feel the discrepancy between his promises and daily reality.

In this campaign, Renzi puts himself at the centre in a way well-known to Italian voters. To name only one example, the letter he sent during this campaign to Italians living abroad shows worrisome similarities with the brochure that Berlusconi prepared for Italian families before the 2001 elections.

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In addition to his personalised style, many voters are also worried about his populist rhetoric and what I would call “monopoly of dreams”: That is, he excludes a priori even the possibility of different ideas of political projects, constitutional reforms, wishes or proposals. Also in these last days, he argued that if no wins, Italy won’t change any more.

But many of the no voters really want change. Yet they believe that the specific changes Renzi is now proposing are counterproductive – if not dangerous. Among the supporters of this thesis, there are famous left-orientated Italian constitutionalists, journalists, artists, intellectuals (such as the novelist Andrea Camilleri and the philosopher Gianni Vattimo). Even The Economist magazine argued that Italians should vote no.

Heading for a Pyrrhic victory?

The wording of the referendum is formulated in a way that Italians have to vote a “package” of five different proposals – which does not let them to choose the ones they prefer.

Particularly, decreasing the number of seats in the Senate from 315 to 100 and remodelling its legislative duties might perhaps speed up the procedures and reduce the financial costs of politics, but it could also have worrying consequences.

It is true that through limiting the authority of the Senate, the lower Chamber of Deputies will have more power (as in Spain, Germany and the UK), and this could help to avoid the so-called “ping-pong” of proposed laws between the two chambers.

It is also true that the Senate could still propose changes in legislation. But it gets especially worrying in combination with Renzi’s new electoral system – the so-called Italicum, which disproportionately rewards the winning party with extra seats in the parliament.

This would vest too much power in the hands of the party of any given prime minister. Renzi argues that this would avoid a continuous power change (Italy has had 65 governments since 1945) and permit the government to work with continuity and efficiency.

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He may have been naive, he may have liked the idea of an all-powerful prime minister with himself sitting firmly in Palazzo Chigi, but did he really forget that he can also lose? And doesn’t he realise that he can also lose by winning?

If this constitutional reform is accepted, the winner of the next elections does not necessarily go by the name of Matteo Renzi, but for example (and at the moment this seems to be more realistic) it could also be Beppe Grillo.

For Italy and Europe, this means that a vote for “yes” actually increases the chances for an Italexit. And as everybody is well aware, looking back at the Italian prime ministers over the past decade, is it really such a good idea to give one man or one party so much power?

So, even if the yes camp wins, it could be a boomerang effect that destroys all the prime minister’s professed goals. Are you sure you want to vote yes, Renzi?

Silvia Mazzini is an assistant professor at the Humboldt University of Berlin. She is the author of Für eine mannigfaltige mögliche Welt. Kunst und Politik bei Ernst Bloch und Gianni Vattimo (For a Many-fold Possible World. Arts and Politics in Ernst Bloch and Gianni Vattimo) and of numerous articles on aesthetics, political philosophy and theatre sciences. She works as dramaturge and author for several theatre companies.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.