The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Italy’s Brexit moment? The complex constitutional referendum that could rock Europe.

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

On June 23, a referendum in Britain produced a dramatic result: The United Kingdom would become the first European Union member to leave the supranational institution that some credit as the glue that has kept postwar Europe together.

This weekend, another less-heralded referendum could mark another blow to Europe's status quo. Italians will go vote Sunday on whether to amend the Italian constitution to reform the country's parliament and the way its governments are created.

While it may sound remarkably technocratic and complicated, the Italian referendum could have a huge effect in both symbolic and practical terms upon all of Europe. Here's our guide.

Why is Italy having a referendum?

When Prime Minister Matteo Renzi came to power in 2014, he promised to reform Italian politics and get the economy booming. With the support of his center-left Democratic Party, he introduced a parliamentary bill that attempted to alter Italy's 1947 constitution. The prime minister and his allies argued the constitutional changes would streamline the country's legislative process, while his critics note that it would take away many powers from Italy's parliament and put them in the hands of the prime minister.

The highly contested bill finally passed through parliament earlier this year, but it didn't receive the qualified two-thirds majority of votes needed to change the constitution. So, Renzi had to seek a referendum. After Italy's Court of Cassation approved the referendum in August, the vote's date was set for Dec. 4.

It will be Italy's third constitutional referendum: In 2001 voters approved changes to the constitution, but in 2006, proposals were rejected.

What exactly are Italians voting on?

Unlike the Brexit vote, which was a seemingly simple question about E.U. membership (though maybe not so simple in practical terms), Italians on Sunday will be voting on a complicated package of changes to the way Italy's democracy functions. It's actually so complicated that one Italian start-up has been offering classes for how to understand the referendum. They cost around $154 an hour, according to the Telegraph.

Perhaps the most important change is relatively easy to understand. The idea is to move Italy from a perfect bicameral system, where the lower Chamber of Deputies and upper Senate are roughly equal, to one where the Chamber of Deputies holds the majority of power and the Senate has vastly reduced powers.

The number of Senators will be dropped from 315 to 100: 95 would be selected by the government from regional councils and include some mayors and the other five would be appointed by Italy's president. Under this system, the Senate would take on a consultative role and the Chamber of Deputies would have the final say on a variety of legislation, including the budget, though the Senate would still have equal powers in some limited areas like constitutional reform.

There are other aspects of the proposal that are also important, however. One major one would attempt to clarify the balance of power between the regions and the central government, largely granting the former more control. Then there's also the separate, but deeply intertwined, issue of Italicum, Renzi's new electoral system for the Chamber of Deputies.

Italicum? What's that?

Renzi was the leading proponent of a new electoral system dubbed “Italicum,” which would change the way voting for the Chamber of Deputies worked, creating a two-round voting system that could give a bonus number of seats to whichever party wins more than 40 percent of seats. The system effectively means that a party will be able to hold a majority in the Chamber of Deputies without winning a majority of seats. It seems designed to create a true two party system, like that of the United States or Britain.

This voting system was approved last year, but it was not designed to apply to the Senate. If Renzi loses the referendum and the Senate retains its considerable power, it will have to be dramatically reconsidered.

Why does Renzi want to do all this?

The sympathetic answer: Italy's democracy has long been accused of making slow progress on legislation. In particular, the constitution, drawn up after the fascist rule of Mussolini at a politically contentious time in Italy, makes it necessary for a government to have strong support in both houses of parliament, which effectively have the same power.

Without the support of both houses, Italian governments can be remarkably short-lived. In the 70 years since the constitution was put in place, there have been 65 governments. Only one has served a full five-year term. Meanwhile, legislation can end up lost in limbo indefinitely. The proposed changes would not only make it easier to form a government, but make it simpler for that government to implement legislation. Renzi believes this would make Italy stronger politically, which would in turn boost the country's uninspiring economic performance.

The unsympathetic answer: Renzi, a headstrong politician already, wants to remove the checks and balances imposed on the prime minister's office, at a time when smaller anti-establishment parties like Beppe Grillo's Five Star Movement are challenging his power.

Wait, what is the Five Star Movement and why does it oppose Renzi?

As The Washington Post's Anthony Faiola once noted, Beppe Grillo, the founder of the Five Star Movement, looks “like Jerry Garcia” but “jokes like Jon Stewart.” However, to some watching European politics over the past few years, the comedian-cum-politician's populist uprising could be compared to that of Donald Trump.

It's a far from perfect comparison in many ways — the Five Star Movement is usually described as left-leaning, for one thing — but Grillo's anti-establishment and anti-corruption message certainly has the potential to upend Italian politics in the same way that Donald Trump did during the recent U.S. election or Nigel Farage and others did during Britain's Brexit vote. Grillo himself welcomed Trump's election. “It is those who dare, the obstinate, the barbarians who will take the world forward,” he wrote on his blog. “We are the barbarians!”

Along with former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (which actually led an attempt to make constitutional changes in 2006, but lost their own referendum), the Five Star Movement has become one of the main voices speaking out against the referendum, using it as a tool to criticize Renzi's government. To make matters worse, Renzi has suggested he would resign if he loses the referendum, effectively making it a plebiscite on his leadership at a time when many Italians are not so sure he is doing a good job.

So is this Brexit, Part 2?

Not exactly. There are as many differences as similarities. Most obviously, the referendum isn't actually directly related to the E.U. at all. And as much as it is widely seen as a populist revolt, some members of the Italian political elite, including former prime minister Mario Monti and members of the Democratic Party, have campaigned for the “no” vote.

In particular, it's worth pointing out that the populist Five Star Movement is actually campaigning against dramatic change here. And remarkably, some view the rise of the Five Star Movement as a reason to keep the system they have already, should Grillo be able to form a government at some point.

But the symbolic value of the vote could be huge for the E.U. To many, it will be yet another populist uprising, after Trump and Brexit and ahead of a French election next year that many suspect the National Front's Marine Le Pen could win (the vote takes place on the same day that a far-right candidate could win presidential office in Austria). The vote may be seen as a mark of approval for Grillo, who has said he wants a referendum on leaving the euro, though he has stopped short of saying Italy should leave the E.U. itself.

And while Renzi styled himself as a “Demolition Man,” willing to stand up to Brussels and hoping to reform the country, he's now seen as key defender of European values in the E.U.'s fourth largest economy. Italy's business groups and investors tend to support the “yes” vote in the referendum, like their counterparts supported the “remain” vote with Brexit.

What will happen on Sunday?

Because of Italian law, the last polls on the referendum were released Nov. 18. They largely showed that the “no” vote had the edge, though many experts caution that this shouldn't be taken as a sign that the outcome is set in stone: A lot can change in two weeks, and there remain a large amount of undecided voters.

If Renzi does win the referendum, it will be a key win for an ambitious politician — and possibly a good sign for his chances in elections due in 2018. (Renzi became prime minister in 2014 without election.) However, it remains possible that Italy's Constitutional Court could reject Renzi's electoral reform or seek to alter it, which would be a loss for the prime minister though likely one he could survive.

If the “no” vote wins, Renzi has repeatedly said he will resign as prime minister, much like David Cameron, the British prime minister who called Britain's Brexit referendum. Unlike Cameron, however, he is widely expected to continue working on the front lines of politics. In the chaos that follows, Italy's banks — already in real trouble — are expected to take a hit. It's also possible new elections could be called — and some recent polls showed that Grillo and the Five Star Movement may be the most popular party in the country.

More on WorldViews

Italy prohibits last-minute voter polls, but bloggers find creative ways to publish them anyway

Is Trump a Berlusconi? Let a Berlusconi expert explain.

Berlusconi opens up about Trump, Putin and the failure of political correctness