The Italian referendum No vote: contents and context


“Everyone can agree that a Constitution is the fundamental pact building a society and a State and that any change has to be evaluated carefully… That was not the case”

The Renzi government’s crisis was fixed in about ten days. A new government, led by Paolo Gentiloni, former Foreign Minister, obtained a confidence vote, from the Chamber of Deputies (the lower chamber), and the Senate (the upper chamber). Most of the ministers have been confirmed; the parliamentarian majority is the same; “continuity” is the word used most often in the policy speech of the new prime minister. None of the financial disasters predicted before the vote in the case of a No victory have happened; actually, the Milan stock exchange did better than before.

Nevertheless, the political earthquake was important and fresh elections are around the corner.

Two important events are coming. On January 11th the Constitutional Court will decide whether the three referendums that the CGIL has proposed that would delete the worst rules of the so called “Jobs Act” and previous labor market laws, can go forward. On January 24th, the same Court will decide on the electoral law pushed for by the Renzi government, in an attempt to resolve the unconstitutionality of the previous electoral law. Many predict a new negative decision, due to the fact that the so called “Italicum” (the Renzi made law) replicates the problem of too many parliamentary seats being given to the party with the largest percentage of the vote, and the fact that voters under Italicum have little chance of voting for the candidate of their choice, rather than a person decided on by the parties’ leadership.

In order to go to fresh elections, the Parliament has to approve a new law, based on the upcoming Constitutional Court decision, and establish an electoral system for both chambers, given that the Italicum assumed that only the Chamber of Deputies was elective – which would have been the case in the event of a YES victory in the December 4th referendum.

What was really at stake in the constitutional referendum? Why did a significant part of the left and the center left (including the minority of the Democratic Party, the Renzi party) and the most important leftist social mass organizations stand on the NO front? What are the linkages between the vote and the social situation of the country?

1) The reform’s contents

While the vote was charged by many political meanings (see below), there was widespread opposition to the reform’s contents. This begins with the method of its approval, which also explains why we went to the referendum.

Everyone can agree that a Constitution is the fundamental pact building a society and a State and that any change has to be evaluated carefully by searching for a large consensus in the parliament and in the country. That was not the case: the reform law had been approved only by the parliament’s majority (very narrow in the Senate), and with recourse to a confidence vote, reducing the scope of the debate also inside the majority itself.

The national referendum was not a nice democratic concession by the Renzi government: it was compulsory, according to the Constitution, because the reform didn’t reach the required two third parliamentary vote to pass directly without the need of electoral validation.

“… this would lead to dysfunction in the regulation and management of essential public services …”

Renzi propagated a myth that the “old” Constitution had never been modified in 70 years. In fact, the Italian Constitution was promulgated in 1948 and has been changed many times. The last change, in 2012 happened with a practically unanimous parliamentary vote, under the Monti government and it changed Article 81, introducing the obligation to balance the State’s annual budget. In 2001 and 2006 people were called to vote on constitutional referendums, again because the majority coalition changed the Constitution without the necessary parliamentarian approval. In 2001, the reform was backed by the center left, and the majority of voters confirmed it (with a very low turnout, about 30%). In 2006, the popular vote defeated the reform that had been approved in Parliament only by the Berlusconi majority (turnout 52%).

The Renzi reform was the largest one, so far, regarding 47 articles of the second part of the Constitution (institutional organization of the State). The core of the reform was to fix the present “perfectly bicameral” system, where the parliament upper and lower houses have equal legislative powers. Renzi wanted to replace the directly elected Senate of 315 seats, with a smaller chamber of 100 members, chosen by the Regional Councils from among their members.

Along with many other constitutional changes, the second most important “reform” regarded the relations between the central State and the Regions; taking away much of the authority of local governments that the 2001 center left reform had given them. And in the opinion of many constitutional scholars (including many former members and presidents of the Constitutional Court – most of whom stood on the NO front), this would lead to dysfunction in the regulation and management of essential public services delegated to the Region, and to a huge increase in authority disputes between the Regions and the Italian State.

“ … the majority of the population, particularly young people, workers and those living in southern Italy, has not seen any positive change …”

Also the supposed elimination of “perfect bicameralism” was unclear, due to the confusing nature of the proposed new regulation and the capacity of the Senate to call for the review of any proposed law it wanted to examine. The only clear new rule on the relation between the two chambers was that a confidence vote in the government was given by the reform solely to the Chamber of Deputies – leaving Italy with a parliamentary system, not a presidential one.

There is an important institutional question that also fueled the NO position, even if it was not directly included in the reform: the linkage between the new role of the Chamber of Deputies and the new electoral law. The electoral law called “Italicum” states that the party that wins the election (with 40% of the vote in the first ballot; or wins the second ballot between the first two parties, regardless the percentage of vote in the first run) gains the 54% of the seats (332 out of 615). So, due to the Italian institutional system, as a result of the reform, that party (which might be very small in terms of real representation), would have been able not only to elect the prime minister and the government, but the President of the Republic and the Constitutional Judges (elected by members of both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate).

So, the constitutional reform was seen by the leftist opposition (and not only) as a big concentration of powers: from Regions and local authorities to the central State; from Parliament to Government; from Government to the party winner of the elections (in a context of reduced representation, given the very high majority premium guaranteed by the new electoral law).

In the opinion of those on the left who opposed the reform, there was a clear continuity with the last institutional and electoral reforms in Italy, that were mainly pushed by the center-right parties and international financial powers, and aimed to concentrate political power, reduce the representativeness of the parliament and reduce the space of the opposition in order to sterilize the voice of the working class. In fact, in the last 25 years, several changes to the electoral laws and a push toward a “de facto” presidential system, denied by the Constitution, contributed to the restriction of the people’s political participation and, particularly, to the progressive exclusion of the radical left from the parliament (obviously, with a huge assist from the litigious leftist organizations themselves).

2) The vote’s political meanings

In a normal scenario, a constitutional reform is an issue largely in the hands of Parliament, with the Government less involved, or not involved at all. However, in this case, it was the Renzi Government playing the game, with two clear objectives: build up a more centralized institutional system and give more power to the government; realize a resounding victory in the referendum as electoral validation for a government and a leadership never chosen through a popular election. As you might remember, Renzi was not a parliamentarian and he became prime minister after his victory in the internal primary vote for the Democratic Party’s leadership and he pushed his own party parliamentarians to withdraw the confidence in then Prime Minister Enrico Letta, member of his same Partito Democratico (PD).

However, despite the clear signals of popular discontent – particularly in the June 2016 municipal elections, when the PD lost 19 out of 20 second ballots – Renzi launched the referendum campaign as a vote on him and his government, claiming that his government had obtained amazing results on the economy, employment, political renewal and so on.

Yes, the effect was truly amazing: he was able to coalesce not only previous voters of the opposition parties – those of the divided centre right, the small far left and, over all, the Five Star Movement, which actually was the largest vote getter in the 2013 political elections – but also a large number of people disaffected from politics, who in recent years had deserted the polling stations.

The popular rejection of the government and its policies and the opposition to the reform’s contents added up reaching together more than 19 million votes.

3) The demography of the vote: a class “revolt”?

Is there a social configuration of the vote? Yes, off course.

Firstly, it’s worth noting that, despite the Renzi propaganda on the “new”, on the YES vote “for the future” against the NO as the return to the past, the NO vote was particularly large among the young generations. While the YES prevailed only among the over 65 years old (56% against 44%), the largest NO vote was among the 25 – 34 years old voters (72% against 28%).

The YES vote won with a narrow margin only in three regions out of twenty (Trentino Alto Adige 53.9%; Tuscany 52.5%; Emilia Romagna 50.4%) which are regions traditionally on the centre left and PD side, but also among the better off regions in Italy. On the contrary, the largest NO results came from the southern Italy regions (Sardinia 72.2%, Sicily 71.6%, Campania 68.5%), notoriously the poorest part of the country, affected by a huge level of unemployment, and a high gap in terms of incomes and living conditions in comparison with the center and the north of Italy.

According to a survey of the Istituto Cattaneo, a think tank based in Bologna, specializing in opinion polls and research on electoral behavior, there was an apparent link between the vote and income. Considering that Bologna itself was one of the few towns were the YES vote prevailed, the difference in the NO vote there ranged from 51.3% for people earning less than 18,000 euros yearly to 40.1% for people earning more than 25,000 euros yearly.

In many districts, particularly in the largest towns and in regions where there was strong support for the rightist parties there was an apparent link between the NO vote and the presence of a relatively large number of migrants, meaning also a rejection of government policy perceived as too open to immigration.

So, what all the commentators argue – and, at the end, Renzi himself admitted before the steering committee of his party, is that the vote was largely a vote against the social and economic policies carried out by his government. Despite the optimism enthusiastically spread by Renzi, Italy is still in the midst of the crisis, with a very low rate of growth, large unemployment, particularly among the youth, a rising rate of poverty and inequality. Nor was Renzi’s attempt to distinguish himself from the unpopular austerity policies led by the European Commission seen as authentic.

The major social reforms the government claimed – particularly the so called “Jobs Act” (Renzi titled the law in the English language) – resulted, as unions and Cgil in particular said from the beginning, in making work more precarious, without any visible growth in jobs.

In general, in a stagnant economic landscape, the majority of the population, particularly young people, workers and those living in southern Italy, has not seen any positive change in its situation and doesn’t have any confidence in the political establishment, although the rulers attempted to disguise themselves as anti-casta (anti establishment).


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