Risking it all on a referendum: Is Renzi bold or foolish?

Italy's referendum on constitutional reform is approaching, and PM Matteo Renzi no longer seems confident of a win - even facing opposition from within his own party. Was he brave or unwise to risk so much on a public vote?

Risking it all on a referendum: Is Renzi bold or foolish?
Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has been accused of "back-peddling". File photo: AFP

Who's afraid of a referendum? In addition to Italy's upcoming vote, France's Nicolas Sarkozy has promised two if he wins the presidential election next year, but as the recent shock votes in Britain, Colombia and Hungary show, the risks are high.

In London, ex-prime minister David Cameron hoped to use a popular vote on whether Britain should remain in the European Union to rein in a belligerent anti-EU wing of his own Conservative Party – but it spectacularly backfired.

“He will be remembered as the man who accidentally took us out of Europe,” former Conservative party minister Ken Clarke said after the June vote and Cameron's resignation.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos had no better luck, calling a referendum this month on a historic peace deal between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), only to see it rejected by voters.

“Politicians do not know how to draw lessons from history. If we look at the recent referendums, they were all miscalculated,” Professor Iain Begg, a research fellow at LSE's European Institute, told AFP.

“Very few referendums go the way forecast” by those in power, he said.

'Emotionally charged'

As his counterpart at Lausanne University, Oscar Mazzoleni, points out: in cases like Italy, referendums are a seized as a chance for a protest vote.

“They are emotionally charged, it's an opportunity for people to vent.”

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is well aware of the dangers he faces with his December 4th ballot on constitutional reform, aimed at streamlining the political system and increasing government stability.

Having said months ago that he would resign if voters reject the reform, he is now scrambling to insist it is not a personality contest, and admitted it was a “mistake” to personalize the referendum. He is even facing opposition from within his own party, and battling to avoid a party split.

“I know I'm not the most likeable person in the world,” he admitted in a television interview last weekend. “But voters who cast their ballots based on likeability clearly have little interest in the good of the country.”

It may be too little, too late.

“Renzi is running a risk. He was counting on using the referendum to consolidate his political power, but his wavering – presenting it as a vote on his fate, then back-peddling – is harming him,” said Domenico Fracchiolla from Rome's Luiss University.

There are few referendums in which voters actually answer the question posed, and Italy is no exception, commentators say.

“The December 4th vote is not about constitutional reform, an issue most Italians know nothing about,” La Stampa daily said.

“The real question, the one they'll be answering 'yes' or 'no' to, is: “Do you still have more faith in Renzi than in his opponents?”

'Quickly go wrong'

Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban also bet and lost: his anti-migrant referendum was declared invalid after failing to obtain the necessary turnout.

But with more than 98 percent of those who did cast their ballots saying “No” to an EU migrant quota plan, he could spin it as a victory of sorts.

“It may be normal in Switzerland, but it is rare for the British, Italians and French to face referendums and they can quickly go wrong,” Begg said.

“Even if there are good reasons to put the vote to the people, the fact is it's a “yes” or “no” vote, there is no in-between.”

Switzerland seems to be exception that proves the rule, with its citizens voting every three months on popular initiatives, presented by parties or citizen groups, and referendums put forward by the State.

“There is a great voting tradition, which means the elites have learned what is necessary to inform, persuade and prepare public opinion,” Swiss political scientist Pascal Sciarini told AFP.

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Second Italian minister takes anti-mafia reporter Saviano to court

Just weeks after going on trial in a case brought by Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, Italian investigative journalist Roberto Saviano was back in court on Wednesday facing allegations of defamation lodged by Meloni's deputy, Matteo Salvini.

Second Italian minister takes anti-mafia reporter Saviano to court

Deputy Prime Minister Salvini, whose far-right League party is a key member of Meloni’s coalition, is suing the journalist for calling him the “minister of the criminal underworld” in a social media post in 2018.

In November, Saviano went on trial in a case brought by Meloni for calling her a “bastard” in 2020 over her attitude towards vulnerable migrants.

READ ALSO: Press freedom fears as Italian PM Meloni takes Saviano to trial

Meloni’s far-right Brothers of Italy party was in opposition at the time, but won September elections on a promise to curb mass migration.

Saviano, known for his international mafia bestseller “Gomorrah”, regularly clashes with Italy’s far-right and says the trials are an attempt to intimidate him.

He faces up to three years in prison if convicted in either trial.

“I think it is the only case in Western democracies where the executive asks the judiciary to lay down the boundaries within which it is possible to criticise it,” Saviano said in a declaration in court on Wednesday.

He said he was “blatantly the victim of intimidation by lawsuit”, on trial “for making my opinion, my thoughts, public”.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about press freedom in Italy

Press freedom watchdogs and supporters of Saviano have called for the suits to be scrapped. Meloni refused in November, despite criticism that her position of power makes it an unfair trial.

Armed guard

Saviano has lived under police protection since revealing the secrets of the Naples mafia in 2006.

But when Salvini was appointed interior minister in a previous government in June 2018, he suggested he might scrap Saviano’s armed guard.

The writer reacted on Facebook, saying Salvini “can be defined ‘the minister of the criminal underworld’,” an expression he said was coined by anti-fascist politician Gaetano Salvemini to describe a political system which exploited voters in Italy’s poorer South.

READ ALSO: Anti-mafia author Saviano won’t be ‘intimidated’ by Salvini

He accused Salvini of having profited from votes in Calabria to get elected senator, while failing to denounce the region’s powerful ‘Ndrangheta mafia and focusing instead on seasonal migrants.

Salvini’s team are expected to reject any claim he is soft on the mafia.

Saviano’s lawyer said he will call as a witness the current interior minister Matteo Piantedosi, who at the time was in charge of evaluating the journalist’s police protection.

The next hearing was set for June 1st.

Watchdogs have warned of the widespread use in Italy of SLAPPS, lawsuits aimed at silencing journalists or whistleblowers.

Defamation through the media can be punished in Italy with prison sentences from six months to three years, but the country’s highest court has urged lawmakers to rewrite the law, saying jail time for such cases was unconstitutional.

Saviano is also being sued by Culture Minister Gennaro Sangiuliano in a civil defamation case brought in 2020, before Sangiuliano joined the cabinet.

A ruling in that case could come in the autumn. If he loses that case Saviano may have to pay up to 50,000 euros in compensation, his lawyer told AFP.

Italy ranked 58th in the 2022 world press freedom index published by Reporters Without Borders, one of the lowest positions in western Europe.