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Italy PM Renzi battles to avoid party split over referendum

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi sought on Monday to avoid a rift in his Democratic Party over an upcoming referendum on constitutional reforms.

Italy PM Renzi battles to avoid party split over referendum
Some members of Renzi's own party have warned they will vote 'No' in the upcoming referendum. Photo: Aris Messinis/AFP

The changes are aimed at increasing political stability in a country which has had 63 governments since 1945, with Renzi's future riding on the outcome of the December 4th plebiscite.

For months the centre-left Democratic Party has been split on the issue, with a minority of lawmakers deeming the mooted reforms and the new electoral law which would accompany them to be dangerous to democracy.

In a bid to assuage the reforms' opponents within his own party, Renzi on Monday proposed a party committee be set up, including at least one member of the dissenting minority, to propose a new electoral law, but only after the December 4th referendum.

However one of the main voices among the naysayers, Gianni Cuperlo, warned that he would still vote against the proposed constitutional amendments unless changes are made ahead of the poll.

Cuperlo added that he would resign from parliament if the plans weren't changed.

Like other “rebels” he also warned of a possible split in the Democratic Party's ranks.

“If you win (the referendum), you will be left with a field of rubble,” he said, in comments aimed at Renzi, accusing the prime minister of causing tension by angering deputies further to the left.

Opinion polls tight

The proposed reforms – deemed the most important in Italy since World War II – would streamline parliament and the electoral system in the hope of bringing the country badly-needed political stability.

But the vote is shaping up as a referendum on Renzi's two-and-a-half years in office. He initially promised he would quit if the measures are voted down at a referendum.

Since then, Renzi has repeatedly nuanced those words, saying he had “committed a mistake by personalizing” the vote but had merely sought to convey “a message of seriousness and responsibility.”

The reforms, already approved by the two chambers of parliament earlier this year, would bring an end to the existing system whereby each law must be adopted by both chambers in the same terms – a process that can take years.

Other Democratic Party heavy hitters have, like Cuperlo, already said they will vote “No” in December. These include former party secretary Pier Luigi Bersani and former prime minister Massimo D'Alema.

For his part Renzi believes the majority of his party is behind him and described the referendum row as an excuse used by the minority in a bid to oust him.

The compromise proposed by the prime minister was adopted unanimously on Monday, as his party detractors did not take part in the vote.

Opinion polls on the referendum suggest a tight vote with the “No” camp just ahead.

All the opposition parties are campaigning against the constitutional reform measures, and Italy's European partners are watching the proceedings with some concern.

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ITALIAN POLITICS

Italian government rocked by Five Star party split

Italy’s government was plunged into turmoil on Tuesday as foreign minister Luigi Di Maio announced he was leaving his party to start a breakaway group.

Italian government rocked by Five Star party split

Di Maio said his decision to leave the Five Star Movement (M5S) – the party he once led – was due to its “ambiguity” over Italy’s support of Ukraine following Russia’s invasion.

He accused the party’s current leader, former prime minister Giuseppe Conte, of undermining the coalition government’s efforts to support Ukraine and weakening Italy’s position within the EU.

“Today’s is a difficult decision I never imagined I would have to take … but today I and lots of other colleagues and friends are leaving the Five Star Movement,” Di Maio told a press conference on Tuesday.

“We are leaving what tomorrow will no longer be the first political force in parliament.”

His announcement came after months of tensions within the party, which has lost most of the popular support that propelled it to power in 2018 and risks being wiped out in national elections due next year.

The split threatens to bring instability to Draghi’s multi-party government, formed in February 2021 after a political crisis toppled the previous coalition.

As many as 60 former Five Star lawmakers have already signed up to Di Maio’s new group, “Together for the Future”, media reports said.

Di Maio played a key role in the rise of the once anti-establishment M5S, but as Italy’s chief diplomat he has embraced Draghi’s more pro-European views.

READ ALSO: How the rebel Five Star Movement joined Italy’s establishment

Despite Italy’s long-standing political and economic ties with Russia, Draghi’s government has taken a strongly pro-NATO stance, sending weapons and cash to help Ukraine while supporting EU sanctions against Russia.

Di Maio backed the premier’s strong support for Ukraine following Russia’s invasion, including sending weapons for Kyiv to defend itself.

In this he has clashed with the head of Five Star, former premier Giuseppe Conte, who argues that Italy should focus on a diplomatic solution.

Di Maio attacked his former party without naming Conte, saying: “In these months, the main political force in parliament had the duty to support the diplomacy of the government and avoid ambiguity. But this was not the case,” he said.

Luigi Di Maio (R) applauds after Prime Minister Mario Draghi (L) addresses the Italian Senate on June 21st, 2022. Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP

“In this historic moment, support of European and Atlanticist values cannot be a mistake,” he added.

The Five Star Movement, he said, had risked the stability of the government “just to try to regain a few percentage points, without even succeeding”.

But a majority of lawmakers – including from the Five Star Movement – backed Draghi’s approach in March and again in a Senate vote on Tuesday.

Draghi earlier on Tuesday made clear his course was set.

“Italy will continue to work with the European Union and with our G7 partners to support Ukraine, to seek peace, to overcome this crisis,” he told the Senate, with Di Maio at his side.

“This is the mandate the government has received from parliament, from you. This is the guide for our action.”

The Five Star Movement stormed to power in 2018 general elections after winning a third of the vote on an anti-establishment ticket, and stayed in office even after Draghi was parachuted in to lead Italy in February 2021.

But while it once threatened to upend the political order in Italy, defections, policy U-turns and dismal polling have left it struggling for relevance.

“Today ends the story of the Five Star Movement,” tweeted former premier Matteo Renzi, who brought down the last Conte government by withdrawing his support.

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