On Sunday, Italians voted against constitutional reforms proposed by the government led by Matteo Renzi.
The No campaign had been expected to win, but the scale of its victory was greater than anticipated: 59.1 percent of Italians voted to reject the reforms. The scale of the defeat was such that within 90 minutes of the polls closing, Renzi had announced his resignation as prime minister.
This doesn’t mean that Italy will form a new government as quickly. Indeed, the referendum might mean several months under a caretaker government, as I explain here.
What were Italians voting on?
Italians were voting on a package of reforms that would have done three main things.
- First, the reforms would have changed the Senate from an elected body with the same powers as the Chamber of Deputies, to a much smaller and less powerful indirectly elected body drawn from regional and municipal councils.
- Second, the reforms would have changed the balance of power between the central government and the regions, ending areas of overlap of responsibilities.
- Third, the reforms would have abolished a consultative organ called the National Economic and Labor Council, a hangover from Italy’s corporatist past.
Each of these measures polled well individually, but the reform was less popular than the sum of its parts. During the campaign, Renzi promised that he would resign as prime minister if the reforms were rejected. This gave voters who were disappointed with his government a reason to vote against the proposals.
According to one poll, almost 60 percent of voters said that they would base their vote on their evaluation of the government rather than their evaluation of the reform.
High turnout didn’t help the government
Turnout was relatively high in the referendum: 68.5 percent of voters in Italy (and 30.7 percent of Italians abroad) voted. This is higher than turnout in the two most recent previous constitutional referendums, in 2001 (34 percent) and 2006 (52 percent), and higher than expected. Not all polls asked about turnout, but recent polls which did suggested turnout would be about 55 percent.
The government had suggested that high turnout would help the Yes campaign. They argued that support for No was loud but shallow. This argument was also made about support for Brexit in the United Kingdom’s referendum earlier this year, and, just as in the United Kingdom, higher turnout merely meant greater rejection of the government.
The polls did badly again, but will escape criticism
Polls conducted earlier in the campaign (Italy bans the publication of polls in the two weeks preceding elections) had estimated support for No at about 55 percent. In the days before the referendum, there were rumors of private polls that showed a tightening of the race. The polls therefore underestimated the strength of the No campaign by five percentage points or more.
The exit polls also overestimated support for Yes, but not by so much. However, because both the campaign polls and the exit polls correctly identified the “winner” of the referendum, there is not likely to be a polling inquest of the kind seen in other countries.
The geography of the vote was driven by party loyalty
The areas that voted in favor of the reforms were more or less the areas that would have been expected to vote in favor — areas that tended already to support either Renzi’s party or the various other centrist parties that both supported the Renzi government and the proposed reforms.
The graph below shows the relationship between the Yes vote in the referendum and the share of the vote won by Renzi’s party in the 2013 general elections. (I’ve excluded two regions with slightly different party systems — Trentino-Alto Adige and Valle d’Aosta).
(The Democratic Party’s vote in 2013 and the Yes vote in 2016)
The relationship would be stronger if we were to compare the results with the results of the 2014 European Parliament elections. In that election, Renzi won 40.8 percent of the vote. In this referendum, the Yes campaign won 40.9 percent of the vote. While winning more than two-fifths of voters was considered a remarkable result in the European Parliament election, it is not enough to win a referendum if many of the other parties are able to pool their forces in opposing reform.
There probably won’t be elections anytime soon
Italian President Sergio Mattarella is not obliged to accept Renzi’s resignation. He may therefore seek to postpone Renzi’s resignation until a caretaker prime minister can be found.
An interim prime minister probably would receive the support of the current governing coalition, which includes Renzi’s own center-left Democratic Party as well as splinters of the center-right. The most immediate area of concern for an incoming prime minister will be the Italian banking sector. One troubled bank, Monte dei Paschi di Siena, will try to raise extra capital despite the political headwinds against it.
It is not clear how long an interim prime minister would last. One argument against the constitutional reforms did not concern the content of the reforms themselves, but rather a proposed change to the electoral law, which would have guaranteed a parliamentary majority to the party that won a top-two runoff. Some commentators viewed this reform as potentially dangerous, because polls had indicated that the populist Five Star Movement might win a runoff against Renzi’s Democratic Party. Now that the constitutional reforms have been defeated, we may well see a further change to the electoral laws governing elections not just to the Chamber of Deputies, but also to the still-intact Senate.
This means that although the Five Star Movement might do well in immediate elections, such immediate elections are unlikely. Any future elections — say, in spring or autumn of next year — may well be held under a system that penalizes rather than rewards the Five Star Movement. In the short term, however, both the Five Star Movement and the separatist Northern League (which campaigned against the reforms) have been encouraged by the result. That’s evident in a tweet from leader of the Northern League:
Viva Trump, viva Putin, viva la Le Pen e viva la Lega! https://t.co/r8FXztp9Am
— Matteo Salvini (@matteosalvinimi) December 4, 2016
Renzi’s resignation may create an air of crisis, and many commentators, particularly those familiar with the postwar Italian experience, are used to talking about crisis. The truth is that Italy now exemplifies dull decline rather than crisis. The relationship between constitutional reform and political and economic dynamism isn’t always clear, and it’s possible that these reforms, had they succeeded, would not have changed much. But the sense of renewal at the start of Matteo Renzi’s time as prime minister has evaporated, and it is not clear what will replace it over the next year.