After Trump victory, Italy referendum is seen as test of populism's rise

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While some fear a US-style upset that could unravel the EU, others doubt voters are even considering wider implications

Italy’s PM Matteo Renzi
Italy’s PM Matteo Renzi. The referendum is also seen as a vote on his leadership. Photograph: Giuseppe Lami/EPA
Italy’s PM Matteo Renzi. The referendum is also seen as a vote on his leadership. Photograph: Giuseppe Lami/EPA

Last modified on Sun 4 Mar 2018 07.46 EST

After Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, Italy’s looming referendum on constitutional change has been cast as the next test of populism’s seemingly unstoppable rise across the western world – with some worrying that a defeat for Matteo Renzi, the prime minister, could spell disaster for the eurozone and Europe.

But on a recent weekday in a sprawling American-style shopping mall on the outskirts of Rome, the 4 December vote was hardly seen as a make-or-break moment for the country, let alone one that could sound the death knell of the euro.

Echoing about 25% of Italian voters, 23-year-old Anna, an attendant who runs the Thomas the Tank Engine ride at the mall, said she had not yet made up her mind though she was certain to vote. But she was not particularly worried that the referendum – on measures intended to make Italy easier to govern by reducing the power of the senate – could hasten a general election and open the door to a victory for the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, the second most popular party in Italy.

“My friends say that voting yes [in favour of Renzi] would not be a good choice and would have bad consequences. They are interested in politics and I trust their opinion,” she said, adding that she might still vote in favour of the reform. “Whether Renzi stays or leaves, whether it has any possible effects, I don’t know.”

Donald Trump.
Donald Trump. Photograph: Carolyn Kaster/AP

Many Italians simply do not believe the vote will have a big impact. “[Brexit and the election of Trump] are things that the political parties will seize on … but I doubt that the average Italian voter will see this referendum as a piece in the broader international framework,” said Vincenzo Scarpetta, an analyst at Open Europe in London.

At a campaign rally in Pisa this week, Renzi pointed to the US election to bolster his case. Prompting some laughs from the mostly adoring crowd, Renzi, who had strongly backed Hillary Clinton and admires Barack Obama, asked whether anyone in the audience could have imagined that Donald Trump would be elected president. “The only ones who predicted it were the Simpsons in 2000, but they didn’t believe it either,” he said.

While he acknowledged voters’ insecurities and apprehension, he said a yes victory would give Italy a “strong, stable” government at a time when “many people are worried about tomorrow”.

He also hit back at his biggest opponents on the right, including the populist leader of Five Star, Beppe Grillo, who called supporters of the reforms “serial killers” of Italy’s future and was full of praise for the Trump victory.

Renzi urged yes supporters to “stay calm”, however unsexy their message. “If they call you a serial killer, you have to talk to them about bicameralism,” Renzi said. “Nobody as a kid dreamed of abolishing bicameralism, this isn’t the aim in life. So why did it become so important, why is this reform so fundamental? It is important because Italy is at a crossroads,” he said.

The apparent indecision and apathy of millions of voters, along with those who have said they will not vote, could be linked to the complicated nature of the constitutional reform, which, if passed, would drastically weaken the power of the senate and make it easier to pass laws. It could also reflect disenchantment with Renzi himself, who has vowed to resign if he loses.

In the final polls released before a pre-vote blackout, the campaign to reject Renzi’s reforms had a five-point lead.

Even for supporters of a yes vote – like 49-year-old Tania – the decision is driven by hope that changing the way Italy’s parliament works might get things done. It is not out of any loyalty to Renzi. “We had [Silvio] Berlusconi for years, Renzi is similar, so we have not seen a lot of changes,” she said.

Complicating matters is the fact that neither outcome would represent a clear victory for either populist forces or Renzi’s Democratic party in the long run.

A victory for yes would keep in a place one of Renzi’s earlier reforms giving the winning party in future elections an automatic majority of seats in parliament. The measure, stemming from a time when Renzi and the PD were far more popular, could instead benefit surging populists in the 2018 elections.

While a win for no would see Renzi resign (bad news for the PD) and Italy’s president, Sergio Mattarella, appoint a caretaker government, it would also give the party an opportunity to change the electoral law back, making it more difficult for a rival party like Five Star to assume power.

A no victory could, therefore, stave off a populist takeover of Palazzo Chigi in the long run. “It’s true that a no vote is against the establishment, so its immediate meaning will be populist, but in the long term, a yes vote means the Five Star has a greater chance to win,” said Giovanni Orsina of LUISS university in Rome.

Orsina said it was anyone’s guess how Italians would respond to Trump’s victory. “Voters may think if Trump is fine then why shouldn’t the Five Star or the Lega [the rightwing Northern League] be OK in Italy?

“And of course, we can have a backlash, of people saying that to have Trump is enough. Who is able to read what is in the mind of democratic voters today?”