Italian Premier Resigns After Referendum Defeat

High voter turnout, the rise of populist Five Star Movement and Northern League and the unpopularity of Renzi were all factors
Italian PM Matteo RenziItalian PM Matteo Renzi
Pier Carlo Padoan, the current finance minister, has been touted as a possible replacement for Renzi, as has Italy’s culture minister, Dario Franceschini

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.

The prime minister conceded defeat in an emotional speech at his residence, Palazzo Chigi, and said he would submit his resignation to Italy’s President Sergio Mattarella on Monday afternoon, The Guardian reported.

“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 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 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 realized—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 blow to the political establishment.

The victory for “no” could have profound consequences for Italy and could rattle European and global markets because of concerns about the country’s economic future and evident support of populist and Euro-skeptic parties.

The result will be seen as a clear rejection by voters of establishment politics in favor 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 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 ministers.

The prime minister, who 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 labor 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’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.

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 Euro skepticism is clearly on the rise–there is no clear political consensus to leave the single currency.


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