Analysis of the NO vote in Italy

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The Stansbury Forum has received a lot of interest in the article we ran by Leopoldo Tartaglia from the CGIL on the Italian NO vote on December 4. Many news commentators have characterized the NO vote as akin to the Trump victory in the US and the Brexitt vote in England in June of 2016. Our readers have asked for the specifics of the actual proposed constitutional amendments and the demographic character of the NO vote. Nicola Benvenuti and Leopoldo have graciously agreed to help clarify these issues for our American readers. Nicola and Leopoldo have analyses that differ on YES or NO but agree on some of the underlying social and political demographics.

We are proud to continue to present political perspectives from Italia Bella and we will be covering additional Italian national referendums to be held in the spring on labor reform.

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The December 4 referendum on constitutional reform in Italy was of great importance. There was a high turnout, more in keeping with candidate elections than referendums that historically had drawn fewer voters. Commentators have attributed this turnout to the reckless gamble of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi who made the referendum a plebiscite on himself and his government. On the one hand he was counting on the fact that the reform reduced the cost of government by eliminating the salaries of the new Federal senators, and by changing the powers of the regions and reducing the salaries of elected regional councils. In truth these savings were for “populist appeal” and would have had little impact on the high cost of Italian government. On the other hand the referendum was about the unanimously recognized need to streamline political processes, in particular by reforming perfect bicameralism. At present the House and Senate have the same legislative powers – which means double the time for the approval of laws. The referendum also sought a revision of the system of checks and institutional counterweights, created in 1947 to ensure the coexistence of radically different positions such as those that emerged from the East-West conflict. These “safeguards” have now become opportunities for blackmail and the backroom deals typical of Italian politics.

“Forces that are totally antagonistic”

However a disaggregated analysis of the vote shows the social character of the result: a high percentage of young people and unemployed voted NO, with the highest NO votes in the South and on the islands (Sicily and Sardegna): a sign that the promises of Renzi to rejuvenate – or “scrap” – the ruling groups so as to make way for a new generation, new ways of thinking and new solutions to the problems of the country, had no effect on youth unemployment (in July 2016, + 2 points, reaching 39.2%), nor have his policies curbed the fall of the middle class into poverty (A decline of almost 8% of the population, with an increase of 141% in ten years). The referendum vote very dramatically highlights the separation between politics and the actual social situation.

From a political point of view the situation created by the referendum vote is as follows:

1. “YES” was supported by only the Partito Democratico (PD) despite the fact that the constitutional law (voted in Parliament) had also been supported by the opposition center-right (but not Five Stars), while “NO” was supported by: a) Five Stars, b) the right c) the left inside and outside the PD. Forces that are totally antagonistic. Hence the assessment that, politically, “NO” was not an alternative project but only a vote against Renzi and the Democratic Party government, without much real consideration of the merits of the constitutional reform. Renzi noted that the vote had meaning beyond the reform and resigned to leave the field to a very similar government to achieve electoral reform with votes in the Senate that has maintained its previous power because of the NO vote in the referendum. (In 2015 the Parliament had passed a law only in the Chamber of Deputies, anticipating the modification of the Senate on December 4).

2. This begins a period of instability and political uncertainty, something that the country does not really need given the difficult international and economic choices that lie ahead. Italy needs stability and a sense of responsibility, not political infighting. Germany achieved this stability with the Grand Coalition policy. In Italy there was a unity of purpose because of the danger of financial failure and international pressure, but only with a “technical” government, the government of Monti ( November 16, 2011 – April 28, 2013) supported by the whole parliament. The Monti government passed emergency measures, but also passed political reforms, like the one that provides for the extension of the age for retirement, that no party had the courage to make alone. The Renzi program, from the constitutional reform project and the movement of the party towards the center in an attempt to strike a deal with Berlusconi, was precisely to establish the political conditions for incisive action in this dramatic emergency situation.

3. The vote has sanctioned a fracture in the left and in the PD based in part on internal opposition and an attempt to regain control of the party more than on the merits of the legislative measures put in play. Renzi, who is also the Secretary of the PD has turned a deaf ear to corrections required by the internal opposition that voted against the reform. Even if this rift is overcome a restructuring of the left is inevitable. The former Mayor of Milan Pisapia of Sinistra Ecologia Liberta (SEL), a political organization to the left of the PD, formed an alliance between the radical left, PD and personalities of the center, and managed to maintain a center left government in that city while the PD lost the Mayor’s races in both Turin and Rome. Pisapia has proposed an independent aggregation of left forces with an explicit program of conditional support for the policies of the Democratic Party from the outside. But it is still too early to say what will happen.

Beyond political alchemy, the Italian situation is such that the public debt does not offer great margins for economic or social maneuvers, and the danger once again is that the radical differences and fracturing of political forces pushes everyone to avoid the grave and unpopular responsibilities necessary to escape the crisis.

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Please scoll down to read the second article on the Italian referendum by Lepoldo Tartaglia

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