Matteo Renzi’s referendum gamble was a huge error of judgement – but the result offers hope for Italian democracy
THE banks were going to collapse. The country would exit from the euro single currency. The PM and his government would fall and political chaos was inevitable.
Operation Fear was running at full throttle in the long build-up to Italy’s constitutional referendum vote on Sunday 4 December.
In the end Italians kept their nerve and resoundingly rejected the proposed changes that they believed were a frontal attack on democracy, enshrined the Italian constitution.
The meteoric career of Matteo Renzi, who assumed power in February 2014 as the fresh-faced Twitter-friendly leader of the Democrats, may well be finished.
He had foolishly staked his premiership on the outcome of the vote, but his wrongly assumed that his youth — he’s the youngest Italian PM ever — and “reforming” credentials, among which deregulation of the labour market to make it easier to hire and fire, would be an asset. And he is now paying the price. As the results came through late on Sunday night, he announced he would resign.
Like the EU referendum in Britain and the recent US elections, this wasn’t supposed to be the outcome.
The changes to the constitution — curtailing the powers of the Senate in order to subordinate it to the lower house — were designed to speed legislation so that the neoliberal “reforms” he’s been championing could be rapidly implemented, without opposition, to meet the demands of big business, the bankers and the political-bureaucratic elite at home, and in Brussels, Berlin and Washington.
But interventions by Barack Obama and other high-ranking foreigners did not help. Nor did near universal local media backing, or vast funds spent on the Yes campaign compared to the No camp. They may have had the opposite effect.
Somehow, Renzi managed to create an opposition to his constitutional proposals that ranged from far left to extreme right. The international business press were early cheerleaders for the changes but as Renzi’s likely failure became clear the tune changed.
In a leader article on November 26, the Economist argued that “Italians should not be blackmailed.” It noted: “In seeking to halt the instability that has given Italy 65 governments since 1945, it creates an elected strongman. This in the country that produced Benito Mussolini and Silvio Berlusconi and is worryingly vulnerable to populism.”
Furthermore, the Economist noted: “Members of the Senate would be picked from regional lawmakers and mayors by regional assemblies. Regions and municipalities are the most corrupt layers of government, and senators would enjoy immunity from prosecution. That could make the Senate a magnet for Italy’s seediest politicians.”
But the main problem the weekly magazine identified was that these changes would do nothing to deal the resistance of the people of Italy to “reform” — just like in France, whose enhanced stronger executive Renzi was trying to ape.
What the business papers and indeed the liberal press in general mean by “reform” is not what the word until recently was understood to mean.
By reform they mean regression — on social, economic and political matters. They mean give even more power to corporations to control people and their lives. And that’s why so many Italians — and above all the “left behind,” the people of the south and the young — voted to protect their constitution.
Italy’s Magna Carta was born in 1948 out of the experience of war, fascism and brutal class war.
The political balance three years after the end of the second world war was broadly even, between the communists, who had led the anti-fascist resistance, and the capitalist parties led by the US-backed Christian Democrats.
Today, that balance has been lost: first, after the Berlin Wall came down, with the hara-kiri of Italy’s communists, whose successors fused into Renzi’s Democrats, alongside their long-time foes, the Christian Democrats; and then the rise of the populist and sometimes neofascist right of billionaire media mogul Silvio Berlusconi and the Northern League, now under the leadership of the nasty Matteo Salvini.
Like pretty much everywhere these days, politics feels more complicated than it once was. The country that once had the largest communist party in western Europe now has no communists in parliament and the communist vote is less than 2 per cent nationally.
Many long-in-the-tooth leftwingers and younger people — over 40 per cent of whom are unemployed and the lucky among them mostly in precarious, low-paid jobs at home or in the coffee bars in London — are now putting their hopes in the upstart Five Star Movement.
Snapping at the heels of the Democrats in the polls, recently securing control of Rome and Turin and with 100 MPs, this party was formed in 2009 as an anti-establishment force primarily aimed at the corrupt political class.
It has since has developed a social justice agenda that plugs the gap left by the political left.
It has also called for a referendum on the euro. As with the anti-immigrant rhetoric, the party’s Euroscepticism has primarily been voiced by the one-time comedian and top blogger Beppe Grillo, the founder of the movement, and it is worth noting that at times he seems at sharp odds with the party and its MPs who appear both more pro-European, staunchly anti-racist and committed to policies defending the interests of the “popolo.”
It is the prospect of government by the Five Star Movement that the elite in Italy and abroad in Brussels and Frankfurt are most concerned.
Stopping this happening was the root of Renzi’s reforms — and the panic when it became clear that not only the “reforms” but Renzi, one of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s few friends in Europe, himself was facing defeat.
Back in 2011 Silvio Berlusconi — the tax fraud who, when he entered politics in 1994, presaged the wave of right-wing populism that has since shook the world — was chucked out of his third term in a palace coup.
His crimes were his Euroscepticism and resistance to the austerity demanded by the EU. These were not positions of principle, but merely a reflection of his obsession with his own affairs (business and more personal matters) to the cost of the entire capitalist class.
In that coup, foreign politicians and European bodies like the European Central Bank were deeply involved.
In this constitutional referendum too, JP Morgan and Tony Blair have been put in the frame.
And now those hidden powers are doing their best to ensure that while everything may appear to change in fact things will remain the same, as the Sicilian prince Tancredi put it in Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s classic novel the Leopard.
The President, as always on a hotline to the representatives of the global 1%, rejected calls for immediate legislative election. Instead he has put a close ally of Renzi, Paolo Gentiloni, in charge of a new government until elections that may not be held until February 2018. And Renzi himself is likely to be Democrats candidate for prime minister at the next election.
Meanwhile Operation Fear will continue. We’ll hear more about Italy on the brink of collapse, even though the real causes lie elsewhere — in the growth and employment-destroying euro membership, and, strongly linked, the policies of privatisation, public spending cuts and attacks on employment rights that have led to rising inequality and poverty, and ultimately monsters like Berlusconi and Salvini.
The No vote – with an impressive 65 per cent turnout that even Renzi admitted was a “feast of democracy” – offers hope. The hope that the people are rejecting apathy and the narrative of “there is no alternative,” returning as protagonists in political life.