What Will Italy Decide? The Final Days Before the Referendum Vote


There is no doubt that the upcoming referendum rattles the nerves of many Italians, Europeans, and, quite frankly, many all over the world. It appears that Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is finding himself pushed further into No Man’s Land as December 5th steadily approaches; the date when Italians will place their vote.

It is normal to ask, “So, what is this referendum about anyway?,” even if you are Italian yourself. There is a plethora of bold Facebook posts, articles, and TV ads. Walking through streets of Firenze, one will notice various advertising carrying a bold “Si” or “No.” Both responses are equally fervent and equally as convincing.

We must understand that the referendum is focused on reforming the constitution. Italy functions on a parliamentary system with a bicameral legislature. This legislature consists of a lower Chamber of Deputies and an upper Chamber, otherwise known as the Senate, each of which possess equal power. Through the constitutional reform, the Senate’s influence will be severely diminished, leaving most of the responsibility to the Chamber of Deputies to pass laws. The manner of appointing the Senate members will possibly be altered as well, from direct election by the people of each each region to nomination by a regional assembly. This increased authority in the lower chamber will be amplified by the electoral law passed back in 2015, which allows for any party that wins at least 40 percent of the votes to receive 54 percent of the seats. There is an average 22 months term period for a government to hold the majority currently in Italy. The referendum, if successful, would secure a longer term period of 5 years. This implies an opportunity for an ample amount of time to carry out productive legislation. It currently takes over 500 days for a bill to come to a concrete decision in the legislature. Reflecting on the 65 governments that Italy has had after World War II, these alterations can seem respectively moderate.  

There remains a significant part of the referendum with regards to the relationship between the central government and the regions. The changes will allow more power to return to the central government. Italy is still a country divided by its strong regional identities. There is a constant need to assert individual rights through regional integrity, instigating a negative response to any sign of decrease in direct government representation. Politicians, particularly in the South, find the referendum repressive to democracy altogether, if it were to pass.

With all this in mind, it is important to remember that the position as prime minister in Italy is tainted by a chaotic past of Fascism and corruption. Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who represents the Italian Democratic Party, was appointed in 2014. His appointment occurred as a result of a complex period following the resignation of Silvio Berlusconi and the arrival of the economic crisis. Renzi therefore was not nominated following elections, rather as response while searching for a solution during a deep political crisis.

A severe dichotomy endures within Italy on how to go about moving forward. The Democratic Party finds that we must attempt to change in order to assure a secure future for Italy. Given the lack of trust in government among many citizens, there is a natural skepticism about PM Renzi’s agenda. Alterations to such a symbolic document rings authoritarian bells in the heads of certain Italians. Also, Renzi’s statement that he will resign if the majority votes against the referendum begins to divert attention from the actual context of the reform. It suddenly evolved into a vote for or against the Prime Minister, despite general elections beginning next spring.

The perspectives from all sides have been openly expressed through social media outlets, newspapers, and the like. Recent weeks have shown protests from either side, with gatherings in popular public spaces to express comments and concerns. In early November, a massive anti-government rally was held in Firenze, which required police intervention. Many signs with “C’è chi dice NO” (Who is here says no,) the title of a popular song by Italian singer Vasco Rossi, were carried while people proclaimed their resistance to PM Renzi and his government. This protest conveys the perspective of many Italian youths, who feel that modifying the constitution in such a way is a direct threat to democracy. Growing up in Berlusconi’s Italy, fears are only exacerbated when confronting another politician who proclaims an objective of dramatic political renovation for their country.

Nonetheless, there are those who find the referendum to be considerate of the future for Italians. The outcome of this vote could possibly drive Italy past years of instability and internal disruption, instead of remaining in political limbo. “I do not see an attempt at democracy,” says Economist Giampiero Gallo, a Professor at NYU Florence and the University of Florence, “because seeing a faster and more expedite legislative process allows to put more order, not to add more confusion.” It is undoubtedly evident that there is a constant, overwhelming confusion that exudes from the Italian government. With implementing a new governing strategy, Italy can also further strengthen its position in the EU as well as its international relations. “We need to communicate to the rest of the world that we are reliable in keeping our promises,” adds Gallo.

Fears are continuing to run wild beyond Italian borders. Those dedicated to preserving the European Economic and Monetary Union confront jaw tightening circumstances. While investment bankers meet to discuss their predictions on Italy’s future, populist movements, such as the 5 Stelle, precede to preach their ideals on autonomy. Many investors even believe that the 5 Stelle movement will takeover, if the referendum fails, and thus Italy will leave the euro. It all sounds fundamentally bizarre, but nothing is impossible. If you are following American politics, I am sure you are now extra keen on probability.  

The referendum is not an end all, by any means. If the majority votes “Si,” there are still ways to go after the referendum. It is neither an “end all” to Italy’s issues nor a possible implosion of the Italian government. “The constitutional reform is necessary, but it is not a sufficient condition,” adds Gallo. “There are many other things to be done and, in order to be done, this [referendum] is a necessary step.”

With PM Renzi’s expected arrival December 2nd in Firenze, only one could imagine the mood of his received response in Piazza della Signoria. We only need to be patient and observe, as Firenze’s former mayor defends yet again his position as Italy’s current Prime Minister.

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