The “no” vote triumph is being assimilated in the Anglo-American press to the broad journalistic narrative of “anti-establishment populist revolt.” But the message to be derived from it is distinct from the votes for Brexit, or for Trump; for once this year (twice, if you include the narrow escape in Austria), a vote brings good news.
The campaign for Italian constitutional reform was characterized by lies, wishful fantasies, and projections. Immensely complicated and virtually incomprehensible as a written document, the constitutional reform had nonetheless a simple goal: to eliminate an entire chamber of the legislature and reduce the proportional representation of Italian voters, and thereby increase the power of the centrist parties and the prime minister, on the idea that it would make Italian governance easier. The details of the referendum were hashed out by Silvio Berlusconi and the vacuous puffin Matteo Renzi, current leader of the centrist Democratic Party (PD), before the latter had even entered Parliament.
The nature of the support made it obvious who expected to benefit. “Basta un sì” was pushed by Confindustria, the major business federation; JP Morgan; Wolfgang Schäuble; Jean-Claude Juncker; Sergio Marchionne; Barack Obama. (Berlusconi, cannily, turned against his own deal, once he recognized that its passage would tilt forces away from the Right in favor of Renzi.) Renzi appealed to an idea of Italian progress that could only be guaranteed by the referendum’s passage; otherwise, he claimed, Italy would remain in a morass—it would remain, he seemed to imply, too “Italian,” when one wanted, as in the old slogan from the ’90s, un paese normale—a normal country. To vote against, the mainstream papers argued, would be to neglect “responsibility,” it would be a “salto nel buio”—a leap in the dark.
The campaign against it—the “Comitato per il no”—in no small measure called these falsehoods by their name. Led by a motley assortment of forces—CGIL, the major labor federation; il Fatto Quotidiano and MicroMega, the combative online newspaper and the country’s premier leftwing journal, respectively; and the Five Star Movement (M5S) and the Northern League (LN), a left-populist and anti-immigrant party, respectively, among other minor parties—the movement recognized that the campaign was, in its essence, existential, a way of increasing the power of the prime minister and the ruling party at the expense of minor parties. Constitutional scholars joined them in denouncing the referendum as a poorly written, inane piece of “reform” that would inevitably do more harm than good. Even the Financial Times suggested that the referendum was a distraction from the country’s real problems—Italy has suffered from years of economic recession—and that in fact it passed too many laws, rather than too few.
The forces of opposition were given a great assist by Renzi’s early declaration that he would resign if the referendum went down to defeat. He personalized the vote, as he did nearly everything else; in this instance he became a liability. In his brief sunburst onto the Italian stage, Renzi has campaigned relentlessly on his own voluble image. But the more his image appeared on screens, posters, and Twitter, the emptier it seemed. It became possible to argue that Renzi was using the vote to augment his own power, the only thing he seemed to believe in or truly desire. Still in people’s memories was a referendum from earlier in the year, an April plebiscite on offshore drilling, on which Renzi, exuding typically antidemocratic élan, sought to depress turnout. The vote to repeal new drilling licenses passed hugely—but on a 31 percent turnout, which failed to reach a quorum. For the constitutional reform, Renzi by contrast wanted high turnout, assuming that fervor corresponded to a desire for change. He got the high turnout he wanted—and a resounding defeat to go with it. In his late-night remarks, he personalized the vote again: “I wanted to reduce the number of seats; I failed to do it, and now I am the one who’s lost his seat.”
Unlike Brexit, the vote—with an astonishing margin of nearly 20 percent, on 68 percent turnout in Italy (slightly less if you include votes from expat Italians)—leaves the field potentially open. For the moment, the PD’s majority is stable, and the President will likely appoint a new interim leader, until elections in 2018. But in the long run, challenges to the feckless neoliberal center can grow. The most obvious candidate is also the most unstable: the M5S, whose politics are at present more composed of opposition to la casta (the political caste) than governance, and whose leadership exudes occasional anti-Left impulses. But there are other places to look: 80 percent of the “No” vote came from the 18-29 set. The journalist Francesca Fornario described the year as “the most beautiful in the world,” a deeply politicizing affair, with its “dozens and dozens of meetings and debates (and even fights).” MicroMega has identified in the vote a broad, unorganized “population in revolt,” and has called for early elections, to capitalize on the discontent. No party exists to capture the sentiment behind the vote, the journal admits. But the vote has enlarged, rather than constricted, possibilities for political movement. As countries around the world are hunkering down for a spell of authoritarianism, Italy has, for the moment, gratifyingly opened a fissure in the wall.