Italy′s vote could spell years in the wilderness | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 30.11.2016
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Italy's vote could spell years in the wilderness

Despite warnings that the outcome of Italy’s referendum on constitutional reforms could lead to a Brexit-like stalemate, Italy’s "No" camp is ignoring the doomsday scenario. Megan Williams reports from Rome.

Anti-referendum rallies have erupted in cities throughout Italy in recent weeks, with "No" posters slapped up across Rome by groups as disparate as neo-Fascists, Conservative Catholics, the Five Star anti-establishment movement, anti-immigrant Lega Nord, Berlusconi's Forza Italia and even members of Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's own Democratic Party.

As populist movements sweep across Europe and the US and "establishment" politicians fall, comparisons to the Brexit battle and the American election are hard to avoid.

On the one hand, you have centrist liberal politicians backed by business leaders and culture stars - everyone from tenor Andrea Boccelli and Oscar-winning director Paolo Sorrentino to 3-star Michilen chef Massimo Bottura - publically trumpeting their "Yes," to a series of reforms aimed at streamlining Italy's legislative process and bringing political stability to a country that has seen 63 governments in the past 70 years.

On the "No" side: an array of disenchanted citizens who have seen their standard of living steadily slip over the past decade with unemployment at 40 percent among the young, despite Renzi's employment reforms and who worry that the changes will remove essential checks and balances to Italy's democracy that in post-war years have kept authoritarianism at bay.

Putting their rage into words are the Lega Nord's Matteo Salvini and Five Star movement's Beppe Grillo, who tirelessly fire off unfiltered rhetoric at Italy's once promising young leader.

Italien Five Star Bewegung vor dem Referendum (DW/M. Williams)

The Five Star Movement is confident the "No" vote will boost its populist agenda

"Renzi is scared shitless of the December 4 vote. He's acting like a wounded sow that attacks anyone it sees," said Grillo, before comparing "yes" voters to serial killers.

Constitutional crisis

What prompted the ferocious political storm are a series of, most say, badly written constitutional reforms aimed at making Italy's legislative process more transparent. What looks good on paper, however, appears to have merely added to the overall uncertainty.

Like many Italians, Brunella Buscicchio, a freelance art curator and mother of three young children, is undecided how she'll vote, torn between wanting major change in a long stagnating Italy and distrust - and confusion - about what is being proposed.

"I often have the feeling that in Italy everything is moving and yet nothing is moving," she told DW, waiting at a bus stop near her home in Rome. "The country needs a change, but at the same time, it's very difficult to understand what is being proposed. It is just too detailed. So how can the average person understand what they are actually voting for?"

Watch video 04:24

The crisis in Italy

If passed, the referendum would limit the power of the Italian senate by cutting the number of senators from 315 to 100 and have members no longer be elected, but be appointed by Italy's regions.

Getting rid of "perfetto bicameralismo" - an equal balance of power between the lower and upper houses - would help pave a road through Italy's tortuous legislative process, the "Yes" side argues. The changes would also give more power to whichever party wins elections, with bonus seats in parliament.

That's the part that most worries opponents, already concerned about losing their right to vote for senators.

"Here we have a change which is going to put severe limitations on the democratic participation in this country," says Massimo Velloni, a constitutional law professor at the University of Naples Federico II.

Velloni says he understands people's desire to vote "yes" for something - a desire he says Renzi has been adept at tapping into. However, he insists that tinkering with the country's solid constitution will not help Italy.

Berlusconi reloaded

"People are going to count less, not more. The idea behind Mr. Renzi's proposal is that you go to elections, people choose their government for five years, and after fives years you check again and vote if you like it or not. Meanwhile you just keep your mouth shut. And that's exactly what doesn't work," he told DW.

Renzi at first said he would resign if the "No" vote won. It's a promise he then backed away from as polls showed he would likely lose, but to which he has returned in recent weeks.

Now, what's really at stake - and what most people openly admit to voting on - is their prime minister's political future.

 Italien Wahlplakat vor dem Referendum (DW/M. Williams)

The "No" campaign says constitutional reforms will erode fundamental Italian rights

"He's the head of a party that's supposed to be on the left, but that today doesn't represent any of those values, but that is one more mutation of the 25 years of Berlusconism that we had. He's like a Berlusconi Number Two," says Alberto Lupo Janelli, a former opera singer who says he plans to move from Italy to the Canary Islands due to his deep frustration with the lack of change in the country.

"The irony for me, as someone who considers himself left-leaning, is that I'm now finding myself voting the same way as some far-right people, even if for completely different reasons," he told DW.

But just as many Italians are using the referendum to vent their profound frustration with Renzi and the political class, others may use it to block the rise of what they consider a movement of political amateurs with populist leanings that is now the biggest threat to the Democratic Party - the Five Star movement.

"I think what we could also be seeing is a boomerang effect against the Five Star movement," says Vera Capperucci, professor of contemporary European history at the Luiss University in Rome. "Many Italians who might have voted no in the referendum, but who have witnessed the incapacity of the Five Star leaders to properly govern, especially here in Rome," she says, referring to the political chaos in the administration of new Five Star mayor Virginia Raggi.

"So many people who don't even like the reforms may in the end vote for them, simply as an anti-Five Star move," she told DW.

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