A few days are left to a watershed event that could reshuffle cards within Italian party politics. Matteo Renzi’s outliving seems to be depending on the confirmation of the constitutional amendments on a national referendum expected for the next 4 December. The question at stake is crucial. Not only the constitutional reform has been promoted by his Democratic Party-led government, but Mr. Renzi has been standing up in first person for the past three years, both seizing the spotlight and grabbing the main political debates. The resulting sense of open personalization would entail – in case of a failure, that is a NO-vote victory – if not an immediate resignation, just an attempt to go on after broad agreements with other main forces in Italian party politics, Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia in primis, according to rumours.
The reform focuses on the second part of the Italian Republican constitution, the one setting the balance of power institutions. It posits a redefinition of the respective powers between central authority of the state and the regions’ peripheral one, by reducing the number of competing matters. The goal is to overhaul the huge conflicts regarding the allocation of powers that have been affecting the Italian legal and political system over the past decades, especially after the V Title reform of 2001. At the same time, it purports to sink the so-called «perfect bicameralism» by transforming the Senate into a proper second (upper) chamber, in line with all the other known parliamentary democracies.
Personalization of voting behaviour by Mr. Renzi has been one of the head traits of the referendum campaign. From some time on, he decided to link his own political destiny to the outcome of the next referendum. However, in doing so he made a mistake, by his later implicit admission. On the contrary, if he had not personalized the vote, all his political rivals would have done it. The opposition front encompasses the most different political forces ranging from the extreme right to the extreme left. It spans Matteo Salvini’s Northern League, Mr. Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and Beppe Grillo’s 5 Star Movement, as well as some former Democratic Party members and other tiny groups to his left. Nevertheless, catching a glimpse to survey data, it seems that, among all of them, Mr. Grillo will probably be Mr. Renzi’s main nemesis in the near future.
Prominent economic-focused and financial newspapers such as the WSJ and the FT have so far been endorsing Mr. Renzi’s constitutional reform, warning against a negative outcome that would make foreign investors much less inclined to invest in the Italian economic system. Markets would be given bad signals as well. All considered, through a No-vote success, Italy would prove its own intrinsic handicap to adopt all the necessary reforms to overcome decades of political and economic crisis. Moreover, beyond catastrophic scenarios regarding its economic performances, what further troubles some analysts are the political effects a No-vote would bring about. As the core interest of Mr. Renzi’s political antagonists will be outliving what the WSJ has dubbed a «constitutional reckoning», Mr. Berlusconi could be tempted by the idea of supporting a short-living broad coalition of political forces established on a conventio ad excludendum basis: an agreement on the electoral law to keep the 5 Star Movement out of the running. The point of contention would be a revision to the majority bonus that gives the winning party-list a wide majority of seats in the Parliament. If this scenario materializes, we would witness a period of less that one year and a half in which nothing but a new electoral campaign would start.
Nevertheless, as mentioned above, the umpteenth political stagnation phase could most likely strengthen Mr. Grillo’s political party. Not only its own constituency would significantly entrench, but it could lure many citizens, by now sick and tired of political inefficiency. 5 Star Movement MPs would probably push on anti-establishment rhetoric and stress the evidence of a political plot aimed at making them lame. The 5 Star Movement is a by-product, if not the essence itself, of the present time. An era which distinguishes itself by a collapse in voting turnout and a crisis of traditional political parties. As number of party members plummeted through the past decades, traditional parties have been increasingly perceived as colluded with the state institutions, exploiting its resources, according with Richard Katz and Peter Mair’s successful formula of «cartel party». It is no doubt true that if the forthcoming political battlefield is this, the 5 Star Movement would probably gain the upper hand on the occasion of the next general elections.
All in all, the issue at stake is clear. It must be acknowledged that Mr. Grillo’s virtue is having catalysed social anger, «encapsulated» it and avoided what, in times of political and economic crisis, could result in social chaos and disorder. To be optimistic, the 5 Star Movement could succeed in bringing large slices of the Italian society back from political indifference. But its main shortcoming is to have not been able to develop a clear political and economic agenda aimed at solving the serious problems that have been affecting the Italian political system as yet. Mr. Renzi’s challenge is therefore vital not just for him but for all of us. It is not merely about a constitutional reform that, if confirmed, will bring about both benefits and disadvantages to the legal and political system resulting in offsetting effects. Actually, it concerns the very destiny of the Italian political system. It deals with its ability to express a consensual, legitimate leadership, after decades of political weakness and/or consociationalism – the main cause for economic stagnation and impoverishment of the middle class. It has to do with its capacity to finally convey a message of stability.