At the end there was not a lot of suspense. A few minutes after the Italian polling stations closed on Sunday evening, 4 December, the mainstream TV and newspaper web sites delivered different but quite unanimous exit polls: the gap between the “No” and “Yes” vote ranged from ten to fifteen points. Half an hour later, the second battery of exit polls even enlarged the pro “No” advantage. Prime Minister Matteo Renzi called a press conference for midnight. Actually, he came to the pressroom around thirty minutes later and, in a short but very intense speech, conceded defeat, and announced his resignation from the office of Prime Minister.
At 1 a.m. I was in my bed, sleeping very peacefully. The result was resounding. With a very high turnout (65.5%) more than 59% of the voters said “No” to the so-called constitutional reform, obstinately pushed by Renzi. Despite the previous defeat of his Democratic Party in the recent run-off voting in local elections (losing 19 second ballots out of 20 votes), Renzi was sure that he would get a popular plebiscite – to legitimize his government, one never elected by the people – that he transformed the vote on the constitutional reform into a referendum on himself. It was very difficult, during the electoral campaign, to discuss the actual contents of the reform. Renzi occupied every single TV and newspaper, every town square all over the country talking about the choice between the “new” and the “old”, talking against the political caste, and for reducing the costs of politics, etc., as though he was something different than the main representative of this kind of caste or this kind of politics.
On the eve of the vote there was not the debacle of mistaken pollsters that we saw in other countries (recently in the UK and USA) or in previous Italian elections. Practically all the polls predicted the “No” victory. However, no one was able to understand the very high turnout, particularly in a referendum without a required quorum (voting threshold), and the widespread popular sentiment for “No”.
So is the Italian vote like the Brexit, or like the Trump victory? Is this another episode of “populism” spreading all over the world, or at least the western world?
The media, the opinion leaders, many politicians, before and after the vote, are unanimously talking about a wave of “populism”.
Pierre Dardot, a French scholar who along with his colleague Christian Laval, is studying and writing about the neoliberal “war” against democracy, is nauseated by the use of a term, “populism” that doesn’t explain anything. In Europe, “populists” would be the Greeks of Syriza and the Italians of the Five Star Movement(HERE & HERE), as well as the French National Front, the Italian Northern League, as well as Podemos and Ciudadanos in Spain, and so on. These are all very different political movements and parties. Particularly, Dardot is outraged by the media “escamotage”(trickery) in their avoidance of calling the French National Front (and the Northern League, may I add) with its correct name: fascist, racist, and xenophobic. He is also outraged by the negative meaning the mainstream media and politicians extend to the people by defining their political behavior as “populist”. It is another way to avoid taking seriously the issues people are raising with their vote or their abstention or other actions.
The Italian “No” vote is the result of many different motivations and political positions, even if similar to the Brexit and Trump votes, in that it stems from the deteriorating living and working conditions of the majority of the people.
The narrative of the Italian government, pretending that the country has exited from the crisis, is completely irrelevant to the daily experience of workers, trapped in precarious and poorly remunerated jobs, young people, most of them unemployed or inflating the ranks of the so called Neet generation, pensioners, more and more unable to reach the end of the month with their allowances. No doubt, the “No” vote is anti-establishment, given the perverse continuation of the neoliberal and austerity policies, without any visible difference between the center-right and center-left parties and governments.
The Italian “No” vote is not only a right-wing vote. Certainly, the rightist parties and leaders (starting with Berlusconi) stood on the “No” front, but very important albeit weakened leftist mass organizations stood there too. The largest trade union confederation, CGIL, the largest free time, culture and leisure association, Arci, and the ancient organization of the Partisans (combatants who founded the Republic and the Constitution fighting against fascism and Nazism), in recent years renewed with a large young democratic membership, all of them were very active in informing their members and the citizenship as a whole on the democratic risks of the reform and calling for a “No” vote.
So, what will happen now? Not one of the disasters the “Yes” front predicted in the case of a loss is going to happen. The political instability of the Renzi resignation, and the path to build up a new government is part of a normal political process, quite ordinary in Italy.
The problem, for the workers and the people clamoring for a real alternative, is very profound and independent from the referendum result. Contrary to the concrete hope the Sanders campaign has opened in the United States, in Italy for many years there is not the prospect of a left wing political organization able to represent the demand for social justice that this vote also highlights. The road is hard, and discussion is beginning. But at least, the Italian workers may still count on a strong and well-oriented trade union confederation, the CGIL, which is immediately launching three referenda to fundamentally change the worst legislation on labor market and workers’ rights. They will be voted on next year and covered in The Stansbury Forum.