Matteo Renzi. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Matteo Renzi has resigned following a No vote in the Italy’s Referendum, Chris Bambery analyses the vote and the opportunities for the left.

David Cameron now has competition for who is the most inept premier of recent years. Like Cameron, Matteo Renzi, chose to call a referendum he believed he would win, and found he had lost. Like Cameron he resigned in the immediate wake of defeat.

But there is one important difference between the two ex-premiers. Cameron has left the political scene forever, Renzi still hopes to return. Further, as leader of the centre left Democratic Party, the biggest in the Italian parliament, he will have a big say in deciding who now forms a government. He hopes one of his cronies, probably the current Finance Minister, Pier Carlo Padoan, will take the job and then shift over at some point so Renzi can takeover once more.

We shall see. The knives will be out in the Democratic Party for Renzi over this debacle and the party was already haemorrhaging members.

Renzi was already being attacked in ruling circles in both Italy and in the European Union for calling a referendum over constitutional reform, and then promising to quit if he lost. They wanted this self-styled Tony Blair of Italy to sort out the economy and the ongoing banking crisis. Instead Renzi wanted to secure his hold on office by changing both the country’s electoral law and its constitution.

Renzi did succeed in the first, pushing through the so called the Italicum Law which grants any party which takes over 40 percent of the vote in a general election over 50 percent of seats in parliament, a clear majority. Renzi claimed this would create a stronger government which could push through the neo-liberal economic “reforms” he championed. 

The problem was this has been the aim of the Democrats for over two years because they wanted a two party style system as used to exist in the UK. In the 1990s they tried to broker that deal with Silvio Berlusconi, leader of Forza Italia, the centre right party, a man embroiled in corruption cases while in office. Two years ago Renzi tried to garner Berlusconi’s support for the Italicum Law. Many, many Italians see this as a rotten law designed to profit the political elite.

Because Renzi could not pass his constitutional reforms with a two thirds majority he was forced to call a referendum. He wasn’t forced into saying he’d resign if he lost.

Lots of commentators argue that in Sunday’s referendum people were not voting on the constitution but on Renzi or even the EU. That misses out that many people saw his attempts to diminish the power of the elected Italian Senate, and to reduce its size from 315 to 100, as a means of further strengthening Renzi’s hand because any law needs a Senate majority to pass. Under his plan it would have become simply a consultative body. Renzi claimed this was an attack on Italy’s famous bureaucracy.

Last week I met two Italian post-graduate students studying in London who were both going to vote No because they saw these proposals as undemocratic. But like so many young Italians they are in London, or New York or Berlin because there are no jobs in Italy.

For two decades the Italian economy has stagnated and that’s expected to last well into a third. Youth unemployment is high, especially in the traditionally poorer South, deepening the already existing North-South divide. But it’s not only joblessness. Those in work have experienced not being paid for long stretches and having to take temporary work with poorer conditions.

The economic pain of millions of Italians certainly fed into the vote against Renzi.

The EU was itself an issue. Italy used to be one of the most supportive countries of the European Union, in large part because it might sort out Italy’s corrupt political system. It didn’t, doing nothing as Berlusconi ruled. When he had to resign it imposed a non-elected, “technocratic” prime  minister, Mario Monti, who just happened to be a banker!

But worse membership of the Euro means Italy cannot devalue its currency to boost exports. Its manufacturing sector, bigger than the UK’s, has taken a big hit.

Italy’s banks are burdened with a pile of toxic debts and that has meant their share price has collapsed. Renzi wanted to use state money to bail them out but this was blocked in the most humiliating way by Angela Merkel’s government in Berlin, by the European Central Bank and the European Commission. Renzi had to try and raise private money to rescue the banks and that fell way short of what was necessary.

This is a time bomb ticking away threatening not just the Italian but the European banking sysstems.

On top of all this many Italians feel they have been left by their northern neighbours to cope with a growing migrant crisis. The EU withdrew funding for the Mare Nostrum programme whereby the Italian Navy rescued migrants trying to cross the Mediteranean. Austria has built a fence at the Brenner Pass and France earlier scrapped the Schengen Agreement to put border controls in place east of Nice, all in order to contain migrants in Italy with its struggling economy.

The media has portrayed the No campaign in Sunday’s referendum as essentially right wing and “populist”. Yes the right wing parties, and I include the Five Star Movement here, campaigned for a No vote but so did the radical left, which still has support, left wingers in the Democratic Party and trade unionists. The former leader of the Democrats, Pier Luigi Bersani, who Renzi toppled, campaigned for a No vote. The Financial Times quoted one voter in Rome, who describes himself as a communist, saying:

“I don’t like the Renzi government, I don’t like what they are doing. I want a Europe of the people.” 

That sums up what lots of people I know who are on the left in Italy felt.

Renzi deserved this humiliation and so did the EU elite. They could have helped avoid this but their arrogance got in the way, blocking the bank bail out for instance. 

The Italian president will now appoint a new government, a Democratic Party one, and avoid elections. That will only add to the way the Italian elite is despised.

The radical left had a good referendum campaign. If they can build on that they can help take Italy’s many discontents leftwards.

Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.