Italy’s Referendum: Another one bites the dust?

By: Andrea Varsori

The Italian PM Matteo Renzi submitted his resignation in the aftermath of the referendum
The Italian PM Matteo Renzi submitted his resignation in the aftermath of the referendum. (Franco Origlia/Getty Images)

On 5th December 2016, Italy voted in a referendum to decide whether to accept or reject a sweeping reform of the country’s Constitution. The constitutional reform was promoted by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who had come to power in February 2014 promising to bring much-needed change to the economy and the labyrinthine political system. While earlier media polls consistently argued that rejection of the reform was a likely outcome, the final results that arrived later in the night showed an emphatic refusal that was not foreseen – nearly 60 percent of the voters chose to reject the proposed reform. As a consequence, Matteo Renzi resigned briefly after 11pm GMT.

This vote has been the latest among a spate of electoral outcomes that have reemphasized a rising tide of populism in the West. The Brexit referendum was the first of these events, with British voters leaping into the dark by choosing to leave the European Union. At the end of a deeply polarising campaign, six months after Brexit, Donald Trump won the presidential elections in the United States, propelling into the most powerful political office on the planet. The rejection of the constitutional reform in Italy could signal the fall of another domino with similar populist movements gaining more thrust in France, the Netherlands, and Germany. However, this is a simplistic reading of the facts. First, the overriding success of populism is unlikely in the Netherlands and in Germany – both countries are parliamentary democracies where right-wing populism is not only far from a majority but can be easily isolated by the rest of the political system. Second, Italy’s referendum outcome and the fall of Matteo Renzi do not yet indicate an overarching victory for populism in Italy.

First, the end of the Renzi government does not mean that elections will follow suit. In Italy, the President can decide to dissolve the Parliament only if political parties cannot agree on a substitute. The current electoral law prescribes two turns of voting, with the two biggest political forces disputing a strong majority prize at the lower house in a second turn. Recent polls have consistently shown that the Five Star Movement (5SM), Italy’s main populist formation, would currently win the second turn against the Democratic Party (DP), Renzi’s left-of-centre party. The Democratic Party, who now holds a large majority in the lower house, is unlikely to place its bets on elections after such a crushing political defeat. The odds are now in favour of a new coalition executive, likely headed by Democratic Ministers Dario Franceschini or Graziano Delrio, or a caretaker government headed by a technocrat, such as Finance Minister Pier Carlo Padoan.[1] The new government will likely draft a new electoral law: the existing one, in fact, only applies to the lower house, as the upper house (the Senate) has ended up with an entirely different method. Every new electoral law will significantly lower the possibilities of the Five Star Movement taking control of the government in the future.

The rush to declare an end to Renzi’s political career should also be avoided. Renzi is still one of the foremost politicians in the country, and his political proposals still retain an appeal among that 40% of ‘Yes’ voters. At present, it is not clear if Renzi’s resignation as PM will entail his resignation as party leader. The minority of the Democratic Party supported the ‘No’ at the referendum and may be willing to trigger an internal leadership contest. Most of its leaders, however, have been marked by past political defeats (against Renzi himself, in 2013); anyway, that part of the political spectrum offers little appeal to the moderates who supported Renzi at the 2014 European elections. As for the other political forces, their unity in the referendum campaign was an exception. The radical-left remain in the margins and the centre-right is divided between Forza Italia, Silvio Berlusconi’s party, who still has no viable successor and lacks long-term political strategy, and the Northern League, which struggles to be at par with other right-wing European parties, such as Marine Le Pen’s FN.

Then, there is the Five Star Movement (5SM) that was born in 2008. The 5SM has reeled from its defeat in the 2014 European elections.[2] However, it pushed forth a few young political figures – the 30-year old Luigi Di Maio as vice-president of the Lower House. Earlier last year, the 5SM won the mayoral elections in the capital city of Rome, and in Turin, Italy’s fourth-largest urban centre. Building on these successes, and despite recent scandals, the 5SM is trying to gain credibility as a national force capable of governing the country. After last night’s results, the party’s founder, Grillo announced that the Movement will soon select the names for a future cabinet, and launched an internal discussion for a government programme on energy.[3]

The 5SM will profit in the aftermath of the referendum result, but prospects of gaining more power remain unclear. Elections could be postponed to late 2018 and the problems encountered by other populist movements in the West may choke popular enthusiasm towards the 5SM. Moreover, its current venture into local governance in Rome has been plagued by a resignations and an inability to handle them, signalling problems in the management of power.[4] The referendum has highlighted constituencies in which Matteo Renzi has relatively low popularity: early analyses show the distribution of ‘No’ votes among young people (81% among  18-34 year olds), students (79%), the unemployed (64%), and the highly educated (61%).[5] The widest margins regionally have been registered in the North-East and in the South – historically difficult regions for Renzi. The 5SM is likely to exploit these constituencies; however, it is not alone in doing so, as the radical left and the Northern League will try to dent into these groups.

The international consequences of this referendum, like the potential spread of populism from Italy outwards, remain to be seen. The most probable outcome of Matteo Renzi’s resignation is the creation of a political or caretaker government, with the hope that the popularity of the 5SM and the Northern League dies down. Moreover, the main opposition to government parties is fractured and coping with problems of its own. Further, Renzi is still a figure to be reckoned with; if a provisional government is created in the next days, it is likely that he will try to come back as a leader at its end, which may coincide with the end of this Parliament (May 2018).

Economic matters will also prove more decisive: if the national banking crisis deepens as a result of political uncertainty, the whole nation will suffer, dragging down growth as a consequence. This may reflect itself on the new government and on the DP, which will most likely be part of it. If the next government tries to cope with financial woes, it will need to introduce unpopular measures, thus stoking the fire of anti-establishment anger. It is the cycle of lesser growth and political frustration that may make of this referendum the potential first domino to fall, in Italy’s spiralling into populism, instability, and polarisation.

Andrea Varsori is a PhD candidate at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London, and a Senior Editor at Strife. He holds an MA in International and Diplomatic Sciences from the University of Bologna, Italy. His research project focuses on organised violence in Southern megacities; his research interests include insurgency, urban terrorism, organised crime, and civil wars. You can follow him at @Andrea_Varsori.


[1] Il Post, E adesso che succede?, December 5, 2016, available on (retrieved December 5, 2016).

[2] In those elections, Renzi’s DP reached 40.82% of the votes, with the 5SM stopping at 21.16%. See the Ministry for Internal Affairs’s Historical Archive of Elections at (retrieved December 5, 2016).

[3] See (retrieved December 6, 2016).

[4] Gavin Jones, Italy’s 5-Star aims to reform as Rome fiasco threatens its future, Reuters, September 18, 2016, available on (retrieved December 5, 2016).

[5] SkyTg24, I giovani hanno votato No, December 5, 2016, available on (retrieved December 5, 2016); Riccardo Saporiti, Referendum: a dire no sono stati giovani, disoccupati e meno abbienti, Il Sole 24 Ore, December 5, 2016, available on (retrieved December 5, 2016).

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