Although Britain and the United States have dominated the political arena with talks of Brexit and President-elect Donald J. Trump, they are certainly not the only nations experiencing political turmoil of late.
Italy faces a crucial turning point on December 4th when its people vote on what has been described as “the most important [referendum] in Italy since World War II.” The referendum focuses on increasing governmental stability within Italy, which has entertained 63 different governments since 1945. The process of creating legislation in Italy can take years because potential laws must be adopted by both chambers on the same terms before moving forward in the process. This referendum seeks to alter the existing system by increasing the power of one of Italy’s two parliamentary chambers in order to prevent such legislative deadlocks.
Although this referendum would drastically improve government efficiency in a country that has struggled to move on from the tumultuous tenure of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, recent polls have given an edge to the “no” vote, which stands vehemently against the referendum and the precedent it sets for Italy as a country.
Many of those in the “no” camp are less opposed to the referendum itself than they are to first-term Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. The 41-year-old Secretary of the Democratic Party has championed this referendum from its inception, promising to step down from his post as Prime Minister should the referendum result in a “no” vote. Although it may not have the same immediate impact as the Brexit vote did on Britain’s position within the European Union, Renzi’s alignment with the referendum and pledge to step down in the event of a “no” vote mirrors former Prime Minister David Cameron’s position mere months ago. This declaration has left many voters thinking of the referendum as Renzi’s own personal agenda. With his approval ratings falling to just 25 percent in the most recent polls, Renzi’s close association with December’s referendum does not bode particularly well for the latter.
Frustration with Renzi and the referendum came to a head last week as riots erupted in Florence, Renzi’s hometown where he served as mayor for five years. Renzi was visiting the Tuscan city with the intention of attending his Democratic Party’s annual “Leopolda” convention. Although there had been protests against Renzi in the past, this was the first involving violence. Protesters holding “No to Renzi! No to the Referendum!” signs inflicted damage in the historic city by ripping up cobblestones and throwing firecrackers. Police responded in kind with teargas and riot teams. One officer was injured during the affair. Although the physical damage to the city was very temporary, the violent nature of these protests revealed just how deep-seated frustration with Renzi’s government is.
Protests have reinforced the notion that the constitutional referendum could change the trajectory of Italy’s future forever. One of the ways a “no” vote majority has the capacity to do so is by yielding control of the government to the populist Five Star movement (M5S) in Renzi’s wake. The self proclaimed anti-establishment party has seen marked success in the past two Italian elections, with party members Virginia Raggi and Chiara Appendino enjoying decisive victories in Rome and Turin, respectively. Amongst many other radical party stances, the M5S boast a firmly eurosceptic platform, meaning that the party favors Italian removal from the Eurozone and abandonment of the European currency.
Naturally, in the wake of Brexit, members of the European Union are carefully watching Italy as its December referendum approaches and the possibility of a M5S government takeover looms. Renzi has scrambled in recent weeks to detach his name—and his close ties with establishment politics—from the referendum itself, but his efforts are seemingly futile; polls show that the Italian citizenry will likely reject the referendum, with just one in the last 33 opinion polls indicating that Renzi’s “yes” camp will win. Should the “no” camp win out, Italy’s future both internally and within the European Union at large could move in a dangerous and likely irreversible direction.