What’s Up In Italy?: The Referendum & Beppe’s Words of Wisdom

By: Julienne Grant

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Flag of Italy

Let’s step away for a moment from the transition drama (particularly the wacky tweets) and focus on an important vote that’s taking place somewhere else in the world—in Italy.  And while we’re on the subject of Italy, I’d like to highlight an Italian journalist’s take on our presidential election, as I think Americans can learn something from it.

The Referendum

This Sunday (Dec. 4), Italians will vote on a far-reaching plan for constitutional reform. The Italian parliament approved the changes in April with an absolute majority, but not a two-thirds majority—thus sending the vote to a popular referendum (per article 138 of Italy’s constitution). There are excellent overviews of the complex proposal available online, so I won’t detail too much here. Specifically, I recommend the Global Legal Monitor’s Nov. 18th post, and the coverage available on the EUROPP blog. In short, though, the proposed platform puts Italy’s parliamentary system on the chopping block.  One element of the program, for example, would streamline the Italian Senate from 315 Senators to 100, with the Senators no longer being directly elected. The Senate would essentially become a consultative chamber, rather than an equal player in the country’s legislative process.

The push for reform has been guided by Italy’s 41-year-old suave Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi. Mr. Renzi is the Secretary of the centre-left Partito Democratico (PD), and he served as the mayor of Florence before becoming Italy’s top executive in Feb. 2014. In a “60 Minutes” interview with Charlie Rose this past Sunday (Nov. 27), Mr. Renzi argued:

This referendum is not a referendum to change democracy in Italy. [It] is a referendum to reduce bureaucracy in Italy. Italy is the worst country for bureaucracy around the world. And this is very important. If we have a system with a lot of politicians the consequence is 63 government change[s] in 70 years.”

EUROPP again does a good job of summarizing both sides of the issue, so I won’t belabor either here. Succinctly, Mr. Renzi’s camp believes the changes will create a more efficient process for law-making, resulting in government stability, and in turn, an economic boost that the country desperately needs. The Italian business community generally supports the platform, and outside of Italy, U.S. President Barack Obama has openly endorsed Mr. Renzi’s plan.

Opponents, though, claim that the reforms will make the legislating process chaotic and place too much power in Mr. Renzi’s hands. Several of Italy’s, shall we say, more colorful political parties have been quite vocal in their opposition—the xenophobic Lega Nord (LN), Silvio Berlusconi’s signature Forza Italia (FI), and the populist Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S), which was founded by comedian Beppe Grillo. By all accounts, the referendum has perhaps become more of a plebiscite on Mr. Renzi than on constitutional reform. Beppe Severgnini, a popular Italian journalist also interviewed on “60 Minutes,” explained what a “Yes” vote will mean as it directly pertains to Mr. Renzi:

“Well, if it’s a yes, “yes” vote, we have to be very careful. We have to find a way to, to anchor Matteo Renzi somewhere down to earth because he’s gonna float in Rome. You see, you look at the sky. This Matteo Renzi’s floating away. Because he’s gonna be over the moon.”

The Implications

Mr. Renzi has indicated that he will resign if the referendum fails, as the UK’s David Cameron did after the Brexit vote. Whether Italy’s Prime Minister will follow through with that pledge, however, is unknown. Predictions abound as to what will occur if there is a “No” vote victory.  The EUROPP blog includes several of these, but the mainstream media in the UK, Europe, and even the U.S. have also chimed in. Most of these “negative outcome” pieces are of the “doom and gloom” type—foreseeing a political crisis in Italy, which would consequently scare investors away from a number of Italian banks that are already on the brinks.  Such a banking crisis in Italy, some analysts contend, could rock European financial markets and spark another Eurozone crisis. (see, e.g., “Next Wild Card for Markets: Italy’s Constitutional Referendum,” Wall St. Journal, Nov. 18).

The Vote

Italian law bans the publishing of opinion polls during the final two weeks of political campaigns, so the most recent polls available are from Nov. 18th. Those polls showed the “No” vote ahead by a fairly wide margin, but a lot can happen in two weeks, and there are still undecided voters. Having been a student of the wild world of Italian politics for a number of years, and having listened to an Italian friend bash Mr. Renzi, my own sense is that the “No” vote will prevail. Pass or fail, however, the referendum is significant; if it’s “Yes,” about a third of Italy’s constitution will be drastically changed, and if it’s “No,” at least one of the predicted financial meltdown scenarios could play out.

Beppe’s Words of Wisdom

Just a final note as Italians approach their monumental vote, and many Americans are still coming to grips with the Nov. 8th vote here.  Ironically, it is perhaps an Italian who can best put the U.S. presidential election into perspective.  Journalist Beppe Severgnini, mentioned above, is about as astute as they come in terms of cross-cultural savvy, and his recent observations about our election are worth noting here. Mr. Severgnini’s piece, “What a Trump America Can Learn From a Berlusconi Italy” (New York Times, Nov. 15) serves concurrently as a warning, a sign of hope, and a scolding.  As a warning–that the similarities between Silvio Berlusconi and Donald Trump are eerily striking. As a sign of hope—that Italy survived Mr. Berlusconi.  And, as a scolding—“We [Italians] just hope that this [presidential] election, and what comes after, makes America less willing to lecture the rest of us on what does and does not constitute good government.” It is this last point, in particular, that I hope Americans will heed.

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Italian Senate

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