Nicolò Ancellotti analyses the forthcoming Italian referendum on the senate and asks if the idea of a referendum in Italy is nothing but a set of troublesome scenarios.  Nicolò studies mathemathics at the University of Padua. A person of diverse and multifaceted interests, he is a committed Europeanist.

On Sunday Dec 4 2016 Italy will hold a referendum concerning a proposed extensive reform diminishing the power of the Senate and changing the power of the regions, proposed by the democratic Renzi government. While now the government needs the double confidence of both the houses, after such reform, it will need only the confidence of the lower one.

Concurrently, other referenda come to the mind of Europeans. I, and probably many Italians, thought Brexit would be an impossible kind of a referendum in Italy not just because Italy forbids referenda on international treaties under the rationale that agreements must be kept, but also because it was an ill-conceived and not a precise question on abolishing or amending laws like all Italian referenda are bound to be about. It was the vagueness of “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” vs. the exactness of “Would you abolish Art. 1, commas 1, 2, 3, 5 and 6, and Art. 2 of law no. 51 of April 7, 2010, concerning “Dispositions on legal impediment from appearing in court”, as in the form resulted following the Constitutional court judgement no. 23 of Jan 25, 2011?”. Following this argument, such vagueness allowed widespread wishful thinking and fact-detached propaganda that ultimately led to Brexit. Nevertheless, guess which country is going towards a referendum filled with wishful thinking and political considerations that do not pertain to the question?

Populist promises

While December referendum probably was not conceived with bad or damaging purposes – on the contrary, the simplifying intent seems genuine, despite perfectible in results, the Italian constitutional referendum seems to me now the most effective tool to seriously damage the country whatever the outcome, essentially because Renzi tied to it a lot of things that are not asked there. Even Berlusconi knew this was very bad practice. During the referendum campaign, Renzi promised to pass bills concerning giving a fourteenth salary for pensions and building an expensive bridge over the strait of Messina, probably in an attempt to curb the rising Five Star Movement – a self-declared anti-establishment movement born in this decade that aims to be able to hold referenda on the Euro and EU membership, allied with UKIP in the European Parliament. These expenses would add up to the enormous national debt that Italy piled up during Craxi and Berlusconi eras, that already threatens the future of the country and of the European Union, especially if interest rates were to rise. Let me explain thoroughly why I think this referendum could lead to a disaster, whatever the outcome.

The first scenario

Suppose the ‘yes’ wins and Renzi pushes forward all the aforementioned promises he laced to the referendum. This curbs the Five Star Movement, puts democrats in the government after next elections, so no Eurosceptics in the European Council, but in the long run leads to an increase of debt, which means a repeat of the 2011 debt crisis again around 2021.

The second scenario

Suppose the ‘yes’ wins and Renzi does not fulfil his promises. Five Star Movement wins next elections. Due to the single confidence that the new constitution requires, it is now easier to form a government and the Five Star Movement succeeds at this goal and governs, maybe even has their policies implemented, again at the expense of national debt or even membership in the European Union, while they become a Eurosceptic, vetoing member of the European Council.

The third scenario

Suppose the ‘no’ wins. Renzi resigns and no one in the parliament is able to form a government, Italy goes to elections that are won by the Five Star Movement; due to double confidence they are able to form a government but weaker than the previous case, they do not attain to do everything they promise and, even though this may be good, they sleepwalk in a disaster, as pensions costs increase over time.

The fourth scenario

Suppose the ‘no’ wins and Renzi does not resign or he does resign, but a weak government is formed, the previous scenario is postponed for some years with possibly stronger Five Star Movement, as the legitimacy of the parliament that worked on the constitution was almost rejected, but no new elections were called.

The fifth scenario

Suppose the ‘no’ wins and whatever happens shortly afterwards, the following elections are won by the Five Star Movement in the lower house, but the upper house has no majority. Due to double confidence, they either have to form a coalition government or there is no government at all. Any party is likely to refuse their offers to form a coalition government, as the Five Star Movement refused to coalesce with the democrats on the current legislature, during which they were forced to ally with Berlusconi and revive his political career. While this in principle may be the lesser damage, in Italy, unlike in other countries, absence of a government leads to more expenditure, as pension costs increase as people age and the childbirth rate remains ridiculously low, which makes the spectre of debt crisis re-approaching.


A political thriller

So this seems a trap that Renzi accidentally created for himself. Cameron’s mistake again? What if we understand that linking non pertinent stuff to referenda is dangerous?

On the contrary, the citizen-issued referenda that Italy allows are far less partisan and far less political, because no political force ties its future to something citizens pushed forward, as potential failure burns legitimacy. Even government-issued referenda could be freed from the burden of being called by a political force: Berlusconi – certainly a man who could be called responsible for Italy’s decline, but definitely a good tactician – held a constitutional referendum that was not passed, but that was voted after the legislature during which it was issued. As a consequence of such a move:

  • The referendum supporters remained loyal through all the legislature, allowing the remarkable achievement of the longest serving government in the history of the Italian Republic;
  • The referendum lost political value towards the government that called it, because such government was already gone, so that Italians were all concerned with the question.

Nevertheless, there may of course be other factors yet to arise, so do not take these doom previsions for granted. As Italian politics has never had too much determinism, because, after all, Italian politicians do not lack in imagination. At least since the Fourth Crusade, Italian politics could be regarded as an extremely entertaining intrigue novel; one with a series with brave men, cowards, chases, escapes, lies and all sorts of betrayals and backstabbing. All these predictions may just be a fan theory melted into thin air to this Renaissance alike spectacle that burdens citizens’ hopes. But again, what seems certain to me is the danger of this political strategy; there is a dire need of more rationality and strategy not only in the political thinking of an average citizen, but also among the policymakers.

Matteo Renzi image courtesy of the