Are Renzi’s days numbered?

The December 4 constitutional referendum could be one poll where the predictions turn out to be correct, writes Toby Abse

Matteo Renzi, the relatively young leader of the Partito Democratico (PD), has recently broken through the thousand-day barrier for his term as prime minister. This now makes his administration the fourth longest-lasting in the history of the Italian republic, exceeded in its duration only by Silvio Berlusconi’s second and fourth governments, and by Bettino Craxi’s first government. Flattering as this entry in the record books must be for such an utterly shameless narcissist, who took such pride in being the youngest ever Italian prime minister at the time of his accession, his days as premier may well be drawing to an early close.

Sunday December 4 will be the day of reckoning. Renzi has chosen to call a referendum on what is in effect a new constitution, completely undermining the elaborate checks and balances of the 1948 constitution, born of the resistance and designed to safeguard against any return to dictatorship after the Mussolini experience. Renzi’s proposals drastically reduce the power and size of the Senate, as well as destroying its directly elected nature. Moreover, they curb the power of the regions and centralise a great deal of power in the hands of the prime minister. Renzi’s characteristic hubris in very arrogantly pushing his constitutional reforms through both houses of parliament by repeated votes of confidence designed to pressgang rebellious PD parliamentarians into voting for them against their better judgement, and regular use of the parliamentary guillotine to curb detailed discussion, rather than negotiating with the opposition groupings to achieve some sort of compromise consensus that commanded an overwhelming parliamentary majority, made such a confirmatory referendum a legal necessity. Unlike the abrogative referenda that have been such a permanent feature of Italy’s political life for more than 40 years (since the vote on divorce in 1974), this confirmatory referendum does not have a legal quorum of over 50% of those on the electoral roll. Nonetheless, Renzi does still have to get more than 50% of the actual votes cast.

The last opinion polls permitted under electoral law were published on November 18. Both of them put the ‘no’ camp clearly ahead. The Demos poll cited by La Repubblica put the ‘nos’ ahead by 41% to 34%, with 25% of the interviewees claiming to be undecided or refusing to answer. The Ipsos poll carried by Corriera della Sera put them ahead by 55% to 45%, after eliminating the ‘don’t knows’ and those who said they would not vote. Even if, after the June 23 Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s election as American president on November 8, it would be very dangerous to put too much trust in any opinion poll, it seems very unlikely that Renzi can turn the situation around in the last fortnight before the actual vote, after a seemingly endless referendum campaign that has gone on for more months than most people anticipated - most politicians and journalists had originally assumed that the referendum would take place in September or October.

Whilst some legal complications about such matters as the precise wording of the referendum question have slowed things down, Renzi himself is largely responsible for the delay; he imagined he could use the autumn 2016 budget to win increased popularity in the decisive weeks. This year’s budget proposals, which have yet to complete their passage through parliament, were mildly Keynesian rather than aggressively neoliberal in character. However, the very partial solution to the plight of older workers often made redundant in their 50s - whose pension age was abruptly raised by Mario Monti’s minister of labour, Elsa Fornero, in 2012 - relies on a combination of loans and reductions in monthly income for those who take their pensions between 63 and 66.

Without going into excessive detail, the main problem with the budget is that handing a few scraps to a wide array of interest groups satisfied nobody. Moreover, the abolition of the tax collection agency, Equitalia, is likely to further encourage tax evasion and increase the deficit - whilst years of economic crisis since 2008 have left sections of the petty bourgeoisie on the verge of bankruptcy, some of the hatred towards Equitalia came from shameless lifelong tax-dodgers, not the genuinely indebted at the end of their tether. One of Renzi’s other measures is, despite his very strident denials, all too reminiscent of Berlusconi’s partial amnesties for those who smuggled money out of Italy and now want to bring it back, in return for a nominal fine.

Renzi’s budget has met with complaints from Brussels, since after obtaining some slack in negotiations over the percentage size of the deficit in relation to Italy’s GNP, he has further exceeded this revised target. Whilst the impact on Italy’s budget of this year’s earthquakes in central Italy and of continuing mass migration across the Mediterranean is, of course, real, Renzi appears to be exaggerating their contribution to the overall deficit, arousing a cynical and angry response from the staunch advocates of the fiscal compact in Germany and the Netherlands. However, Renzi’s breaches of EU rules, like the budget itself, are consciously designed to increase his popularity. As Italian Europhobia rises, aggressively and constantly fanned by Matteo Salvini’s Lega Nord and Beppe Grillo’s Movimento 5 Stelle (Five Star Movement - M5S), and more intermittently by Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, Renzi, once a proud Europhile, is now playing to the nationalist gallery. But neither the Keynesian nor the nationalist card seems to be doing the trick.


Renzi’s wearingly repetitive claims to be the enemy of the establishment and the essence of youthful novelty ring increasingly hollow after his years as an autocratic and self-publicising premier in the mould of his great hero, Tony Blair. The crude, populist rhetoric, with which he promotes his constitutional reforms as a means of reducing the number of full-time politicians and the cost of politics (the massively reduced Senate of 100 would be made up of indirectly elected regional or municipal representatives, receiving no additional salary from the central state for this additional part-time role) cannot outbid the relentless ranting of the Lega and M5S, who claim that all politicians outside their own ranks are corrupt.

Renzi’s constant listing of his opponents from the old guard - Massimo d’Alema, Pierluigi Bersani, Ciriaco De Mita and so on - has really passed its sell-by date as a tactic, although an entire page of the leaflet sent to every Italian household in the closing days of the campaign by the official ‘yes’ committee is devoted to such personalised attacks on leading ‘no’ figures, accompanied by a wilful choice of caricature-like photographic images. Those who want to kick the Italian establishment will give Renzi a good kicking. The ‘scrapper’ (rottomattore), as he calls himself, may well be ‘scrapped’.

Renzi’s personalisation of a constitutional referendum, which some months ago seemed to be a clever tactic to engage people confused by the issues, has clearly rebounded on him. Although he has on occasion tried to draw back from his threat to resign as prime minister if he loses, he has probably painted himself into a corner, and the Italian press is only too eager to cite the precedent of David Cameron’s resignation in the aftermath of the British EU referendum. Renzi has recently stated:

If people say ‘no’ and want a decrepit system, the limits of which we have seen over 70 years, I won’t be the one that negotiates an agreement with other parties to form a caretaker government. Either we change or I have no role to play.

This will doubtless be cited against him if there is a majority for ‘no’.

It is worth pointing out that only about 50 PD parliamentarians were Renzi’s supporters at the time of the 2013 general election, when Pierluigi Bersani was still party leader. Whilst many other PD parliamentarians double-crossed both Bersani and former PD prime minister Enrico Letta, these fair-weather Renziani are more than likely to dump the current premier if he fails to deliver the vote.

A ‘no’ vote would not only safeguard the 1948 constitution, but also finish off Renzi’s regressive electoral counter-reform - the so-called Italicum. The Italicum includes a large majority premium for the most successful single party, in what in all probability would be a two-round contest for the Chamber of Deputies, since no party is likely to cross the relevant threshold in the first round. When Renzi devised the Italicum, in the aftermath of the PD’s triumph in the 2014 European elections, his assumption was that, together with the constitutional reform, it would give him an impregnable position as premier at the head of a PD majority elected on a party list system (in which he could block nominations of his internal opponents in the PD, or at any rate place them in almost hopeless positions at the bottom of the list for each constituency).

All recent opinion polls suggest the second-round contest under the Italicum would be between the PD and M5S, not the PD and the currently very fragmented centre-right. Moreover, most opinion polls have given M5S the first place in the run-off. This scenario seems more than likely, given the way run-off ballots in cities like Parma, Livorno, Rome and Turin have produced M5S mayors as a result of tactical voting by supporters of almost all forces opposed to the PD - principally from the centre-right, but to a lesser extent, shamefully, from the radical left. In short, a ‘no’ victory that destroyed the Italicum would in fact make it less likely that M5S - currently on about 30% in the polls, and adamantly refusing to enter coalitions - would form the next government.

However, one has to conclude by pointing out that, although a ‘no’ vote would be very welcome in Italian terms - and the left and the CGIL trade union confederation are absolutely correct in calling for one - there is a danger that at the international level it might be seen as part of a chain of events that started with Brexit and Trump’s victory, and that might end tragically next May with Marine Le Pen’s election as French president and subsequently the break-up of the EU.