3rd Oct 2023

Countdown to Italy's future

  • Matteo Renzi has staked his future on the success of Sunday's refendum. (Photo: governo.it)

Italy’s Five Star Movement (M5S) is planning street celebrations if prime minister Matteo Renzi is defeated in Sunday’s (4 December) constitutional referendum, paving the way for his resignation.

But an unusually high number of postal votes cast by Italian expats may spoil the opposition’s party plans and even trigger a legal fight about the vote's outcome.

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  • Beppe Grillo told people “not to use their brains to vote,” because they are exposed to Renzi’s propaganda. (Photo: kbytesys)

Some 50 million people have been called to approve or reject changes that would effectively concentrate powers in the hands of the national government, in a bid to give steadier governance to Italy, famed for its revolving door governments.

Critics reject the reforms as anti-democratic, designed to lock-in Renzi’s hold on power.

“If the No wins, Italians will have a big party, perhaps a collective one outside Palazzo Chigi,” M5S lawmaker Roberto Fico said Thursday, referring to the 16th-century residence of heads of government.

“Renzi had promised to leave the prime ministerial office and retire from politics, maybe he won’t keep all of his promises, but at least the first one,” he added.

Italians last held a street party for a prime ministerial departure in 2011, when Silvio Berlusconi quit at the height of a financial crisis that threatened to bankrupt the country and bring down the entire Eurozone.

Renzi’s departure is unlikely to happen under equally dramatic circumstances, despite concerns about political paralysis and a looming banking crisis.

Economy teeters

Shares in Italy’s most troubled lender, Monte dei Paschi di Siena (MPS), fell 13.8 percent on Monday, on the back of a Financial Times report that it and seven smaller Italian banks were at risk of going under, because a government crisis would scare off foreign investors and endanger vital recapitalization plans for MPS and others.

Financial indexes have since bounced back, but market jitters may return once the results are in.

“Are there economic risks? It’s no use beating around the bush. If the Yes wins, Italy will be stronger. If the No wins, the risk of a leap in the dark is clear to everybody,” Renzi told Friday’s Corriere della Sera newspaper, starting a final day of campaigning due to culminate with a rally in his hometown Florence.

M5S leader Beppe Grillo was due to wrap up his campaign in Turin, the north-western home of the Fiat automotive giant where the M5S scored a surprising victory in June mayoral elections.

On his blog, he told people “not to use their brains to vote,” because they are exposed to Renzi’s propaganda, and follow their gut instinct to reject the reforms. “It’s a fraud, don’t fall for it,” he wrote.

Voting procedures open to some 4 million Italians living abroad ended on Thursday (1 December), and the Repubblica newspaper reported about a record turnout of 40 percent, fueling speculation about how they could affect the final result.

"If the yes [camp] manages to win the approval of two-thirds of Italians abroad, then we can do it," Renzi said Thursday, according to La Repubblica.

Renzi has mailed Yes campaign material to all Italian expats, and both sides in the campaign have made trips to European capitals and beyond to canvas expat support.

Legal challenge

But the No camp has repeatedly suggested that ballot papers, sent by post to consulates and due to be flown to Rome over the weekend, could easily be tampered with.

The leader of the hard-right Northern League, Matteo Salvini, another prominent No campaigner, said he suspected “all sorts of” foul play.

“I count on the fact that Italians, the ones from Rome, Milan, Turin or Naples, will vote for a ‘no’ and that will make up for the Yes votes Renzi may have invented or bought around the world,” he told reporters.

The issue could end up in court, after the chairman of the Comitato per il No [comittee for the No] threatened a legal challenge last week.

"In voting for Italians abroad, the requirement for secrecy is not fulfilled, and if votes by Italians abroad were to be decisive [...] and lead to a Yes victory [...] we could decide to appeal," Alessandro Pace said.

Polls are banned in the last two weeks of campaigning, but bookmakers’ odds continue to favour a No victory.

Nevertheless, recent developments may work in Renzi’s favour, including a Wednesday deal with trade unions to raise salaries for 3.3 million public sector workers, ending a seven-year labour dispute, and mildly encouraging GDP and unemployment data on Thursday.

Yes winning online

Online monitor Predata said Yes material has become far more popular in the closing weeks of the campaign, giving it a “digital campaign score” of 90 percent, versus 76.6 percent for No.

The company explains that its scores “are not, on their own, predictions of political outcomes; rather, they give a sense for which side is dominating, from day to day, the online conversation.”

A surprise Renzi victory would strengthen his hand at home and Brussels and set Italy on course for 2018 general elections in which both him and Grillo would have a fair chance of winning.

But a No vote would boost eurosceptic forces, although is unlikely to trigger the euro exit referendum that Grillo and Salvini want and that the rest of Europe is afraid of.

But eurosceptic forces look set to be shut out of power via a grand coalition of mainstream parties if it comes to that.

Foreign minister Paolo Gentiloni warned against any panic.

Speaking to CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, he said “Renzi and the government will be stronger” if the referendum battle is won, but if it is lost “I don’t think that we should expect a catastrophe for Europe or for Italy.”

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