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C. Bastasin: The Good and Unintended Consequences of the Italian Constitutional Referendum

image-11/30/2016 - 15:44Italy's constitutional referendum is set to take place on December 4th in a climate of overheated tension. Prime Minister Renzi has framed the referendum as a vote on his personal standing and, consequently, on the destiny of the government, in a make-it-or-break-it quest for popular support. The gamble is proving reckless. Although most Italians agree with the substance of the reform, they are inclined to vote against the government. According to the latest polls, the risk of the referendum’s rejection is high, with “no” leading by 8-10 points. In fact, I wonder if polls are accurately capturing the interests and veiled sentiments of the Italian electorate.

The big “unknown” is the vast number of silent and undecided voters, probably accounting for one third of the entire electorate. After seven years of an economic crisis deeper than the Great Depression, self-preservation could make Italians eager to shun a new phase of political instability. Paradoxically, anti-political sentiments could yield a “politicians-give-us-a-break” reaction, shunning  a “no,” fearing that it could scupper the fragile economic stability.

More substantively, the reforms proposed in the referendum, which would reduce the Senate’s role and leave the confidence vote on the government to the sole mandate of the Chamber of Deputies, as well as change the electoral law to introduce a higher prize for the elected majority, are relevant for reducing Italy's persistent political instability. In the past 25 years, Italy went through 15 different governments. Of the seven latest legislatures, three underwent anticipatory interruption after less than two years, due to the Senate's thin majorities. Whether one likes Renzi or not, a “yes” vote could be perceived by Italian voters as an important choice in favor of Italy's stability.

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