On the Italian referendum
By Alberto Mingardi
Prime Minister Matteo Renzi announced his resignation after a major defeat. The constitutional referendum saw high participation (68.48% of Italians went to the ballot) and the “no” side achieved a clear victory, 59% versus 41% of the voters.
Just four quick considerations:
(1) The country can’t go to early elections because it has two different electoral laws, one for the Senate one for the House, as a result of the new electoral law having been approved by Parliament just for the House in anticipation of the constitutional reform, making the Senate an indirectly elected organ. The President of the Republic will thus appoint a new prime minister, presumably within the ranks of Mr Renzi’s own party (which is still the largest one in Parliament), to lead a cabinet charged with re-writing the electoral laws.
(2) A big problem now is that a “no” side just doesn’t exist. The coalition against Mr Renzi basically included everybody else in Italian politics. Though he lost the referendum, the (soon to be former) prime minister had some 10 million Italians who clearly voted in his favour. The others do not share a leader nor a clear-cut agenda, besides kicking him out. Beppe Grillo, the former comedian who leads the Five Star Movements, wants to go to elections as soon as possible, as he senses he was the true winner of the referendum. Silvio Berlusconi would much rather sit down with Mr Renzi and work out some sort of collaboration for rewriting the electoral laws and navigating through a not unlikely Italian banking crisis.
(3) Anything may happen, but I won’t bet on Italy exiting the euro. On the one hand, the euro without Italy is quite unthinkable. On the other, to quit the common currency would be a very complicated process, with serious downsides – particularly for a country of savers such as Italy is. The Five Stars Movement has some pretty anti-market ideas but, even if it was to gain power after elections, I think it would simply lack the expertise and willingness to manage such a transition.
(4) Many will argue that the referendum is the proof that it is impossible to reform Italy or that populism now is in the Zeitgeist and as such is simply an unstoppable historical force. Well, perhaps, but Mr Renzi’s reform was hardly decisive for the country’s economic performance. Mr Renzi gave a beautiful concession speech last night but he himself led a highly ‘populistic’ electoral campaign, which proved to be something rather difficult to do as head of government. Mr Renzi had a “generous” attitude towards public spending and he himself waved the flag of flexibility versus European austerity. He asked for a sort of national confidence vote on his government: Italians could not really see that their life improved because of any of its actions. This common perception contrasted strikingly with Renzi’s triumphal rhetoric.
Keep in mind that Italians have been shopping in the electoral market for reformists for the last twenty years – and each time the leader of their choosing turned into a disappointment. Sometimes evoking the destiny of populism is just a shortcut not to avoid acknowledging the policy and rhetorical mistakes of the incumbents.