Following the surprise Brexit outcome and Donald Trump’s shock U.S. presidential victory, the humiliating referendum defeat and resignation of Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi marks the third electoral victory for reaction-politics in the west in less than six months. Although Italy’s referendum was technically about constitutional change, it ultimately became a vote against Renzi and the mainstream political establishment. It was largely another result of political overreach by elites and their growing disconnect with large segments of society feeling disenfranchised. Although polls had the “No” vote ahead consistently in polls, the margin of victory was larger than anticipated.
The referendum narrative of Renzi and his spin-doctors was: “Yes” is a vote for positive change and reform; “No” is a vote for the status quo, political gridlock and continuing economic stagnation.
Overall, there is a broad consensus in Italy that change and reform is necessary. The great debate and unresolved question is how to transform Italy. What the referendum result clarified is that the majority of Italians unequivocally rejected change according to Renzi.
The prevailing perception was that Renzi was motivated more by self-interest than the public interest. Accordingly, the referendum represented an attempted raw power grab through greater centralization of power. Much public animosity in Italy is directed at the central government and mainstream political establishment in Rome. If anything, there is a greater public orientation toward devolution than centralization. The referendum veered toward the opposite.
Although Renzi became prime minister through legal and constitutional means, politically he and his government suffered from legitimacy deficit disorder. All along, Renzi never really had a genuine mandate to govern. He never won a national election and was never a member of parliament. From mayor of Florence he became Italian prime minister in a system which itself is viewed by many as broken, or in Trumpian terminology “rigged.” Although he represented a new generation of politicians as Italy’s youngest ever prime minister, the way he came to power smacked of the old-school Italian politics. In other words, he was a new face that pursued traditional back-room practices.
Matteo Renzi was an ambitious politician who earned the nickname “Demolition Man.” However, he ultimately overreached and the Italian public reacted fiercely and demolished him politically. This underscores the importance of constantly connecting with the grassroots in order to pursue the public interest more effectively.
Italy’s political establishment must now unite and focus on much needed short-term measures, particularly electoral reform. Afterwards, elections must proceed that will give ordinary Italians the opportunity to choose a government with the appropriate democratic legitimacy to move forward.