Massive turnout as Italy referendum battle enters final hours

Italians voted in huge numbers on Sunday in a high-stakes constitutional referendum that will decide the fate of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and has left the rest of Europe braced for the fallout.

Massive turnout as Italy referendum battle enters final hours
People queuing to vote in Italy's referendum. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

Renzi, who has vowed to step aside if he loses, was counting on a last-minute turnaround in voter sentiment to win backing for his proposals to streamline parliament and centralise some regional powers in the name of more effective and stable government.

Turnout was very high by Italian standards, with 57.24 percent of voters having cast their ballots by 7 p.m. (1800 GMT), according to the Interior Ministry.

Nearly two thirds of the electorate had voted in some parts of prosperous northern Italy but the turnout was much lower in the south — a pattern which was seen as a potential boost to the premier's survival hopes.

Renzi was in jovial mood as he cast his vote in his native Tuscany.

“Have you decided how you are going to vote, prime minister?” a female voter cheekily asked outside a voting station in his home town of Pontassieve, near Florence.

“Now I'm thinking about it!” Renzi, 41, quipped back before spending ten minutes queuing to register his vote.

Opposition parties have denounced the proposed amendments to the 68-year-old constitution as dangerous for democracy because they remove important checks and balances on executive power.

Pencil controversy

Spearheaded by the populist Five Star Movement, the biggest rival to Renzi's Democratic party, the “No” campaign has also sought to capitalize on Renzi's declining popularity, a sluggish economy and the problems caused by tens of thousands of migrants arriving in Italy from Africa.

“God willing it's over. A new era starts tomorrow I hope,” said Matteo Salvini, leader of the far-right Northern League, after voting in Milan.

Five Star leader Beppe Grillo, who had urged Italians to follow their gut instincts, used his voting appearance to joke about some voters' claims that the pencils being used to vote meant ticks on the ballot papers could easily be rubbed out.

“Us oldies knew what to do in this digital age. I sucked the pencil and it was working,” the comedian told reporters in Genoa.

Outside a polling station in Rome, business owner Raffaele Pasquini, 37, told AFPTV he was voting “Yes” in the interest of his two-year-old son. “We are voting to try and change a country that has been stalled for far too long.”

Turnout in Rome may have been affected by the vote coinciding with the local football derby match.

Matteo Rossi, 25, voted “Yes” before heading to the Stadio Olimpico to watch his side, Roma, beat arch rivals Lazio 2-0.

“I hesitated but when you look at the people who are for 'No', I couldn't be with them,” he told AFP.

Fellow fan Guido wasn't planning to vote. “For me, the important thing today is what happens inside this stadium.”

Turmoil feared

Polls close at 11 p.m. (2200 GMT) with a reliable projection of the result not expected until the early hours of Monday.

If Renzi goes, some short-term market turbulence looks inevitable. Some analysts fear a deeper crisis of investor confidence that could derail a rescue scheme for Italy's most indebted banks, triggering a wider financial crisis across the eurozone.

If he wins, Italy's youngest ever prime minister could be emboldened to accelerate promised reforms in areas such as public administration, the judicial system and education.

“If we miss this chance it won't come back for 20 years,” Renzi warned voters before campaigning was suspended at midnight on Friday.

Up until polls were banned on November 18th, the “No” camp was leading comfortably – but with a quarter of the electorate undecided.

After the Brexit vote and Donald Trump's victory in the US presidential election, populism has been a factor, and Grillo's Five Star would see a “No” vote as its stepping stone to government.

But the campaign has also caused many voters to reconsider the merits of a much-loved constitution, crafted in the aftermath of World War II and the bitter experience of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini's disastrous rule.

Under the proposed reform, the Senate, currently a body of 315 directly-elected and five lifetime lawmakers, would have only 100 members, mostly nominated by the regions.

The chamber would also be stripped of most of its powers to block and revise legislation, and to unseat governments.

Other envisioned changes involve transferring some regional powers to the national government, making it easier to get major infrastructural works approved, and abolishing a costly policy agency in Rome.

By Angus MacKinnon

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Doubts rise over ‘loose cannon’ Salvini after Italy’s election

Italian anti-immigrant leader Matteo Salvini was disappointed on Monday at his party's result in general elections but pledged to work with Giorgia Meloni, who triumphed, to form a government.

Doubts rise over 'loose cannon' Salvini after Italy's election

Whether Salvini would keep his word – or survive politically long enough to do so – was not clear, after his anti-immigrant League party dropped below the 10 percent threshold at Sunday’s vote.

This was a sharp decrease after the party swept to office with 17 percent of the vote in 2018 – since when it has been eclipsed by Meloni’s post-fascist Brothers of Italy.

EXPLAINED: What will a far-right government mean for Italy?

A glum Salvini, who has clashed with Meloni on a range of policies, not least her stance on Russia and the war in Ukraine, told reporters that winning just nine percent had been a blow.

It was “not a number I wanted or worked for”, he said.

Salvini added that he had “gone to bed fairly pissed off but woke up ready to go” and was now “looking on the bright side”.

Meloni “was good. We will work together for a long time”, he promised.

Leader of Italy's liberal-conservative party Forza Italia, Silvio Berlusconi, leader of Italy's conservative party Brothers of Italy, Giorgia Meloni and leader of Italy's far-right League party, Matteo Salvini acknowledge supporters at the end of a joint rally against the government on October 19, 2019 in Rome.

Italy’s right-wing coalition, consisting of Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, Salvini’s League and Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, has promised to slash taxes and put ‘Italians first’. Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP

The League may now have to battle to ensure its priorities are not sidelined in Meloni’s government programme, analysts said.

And while ex-interior minister Salvini has repeatedly said he wants his former job back, it is looking increasingly unlikely to happen.

“It won’t be an easy relationship. It’s likely that (Salvini) will be given a more marginal role in the government than he wants,” Sofia Ventura, political sciences professor at Bologna University, told the foreign press association in Rome.

“The result… throws into question Matteo Salvini’s leadership” of his own party, she said, adding that there were those within the League who thought they would be better off without the “loose cannon”.

READ ALSO: Meloni, Salvini, Berlusconi: The key figures in Italy’s likely new government

He said Meloni had benefited from being the only leader to stay outside the coalition formed by Prime Minister Mario Draghi in February 2021.

For the League, being part of that administration “was not easy”, he said, but insisted “I would do it again.”

‘Dangerous when cornered’

Meloni secured around 26 percent of the vote in Sunday’s poll, putting her on course to become the first woman to serve as Italian prime minister.

She campaigned as part of a coalition including Salvini’s League and ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, which won around eight percent.

Italian politics is notoriously unstable, with nearly 70 governments since 1946, and there were concerns disagreements with Salvini may precipitate a fresh crisis.

Lorenzo Pregliasco, co-founder of the YouTrend polling site, said Italian party leaders proved “dangerous” when they felt cornered.

The League head “might not create any problems in the short term” but “watch out for the Salvini factor, if he survives politically as a leader”.

Salvini however said that after years of unwieldy coalitions, Italy finally had “a government chosen by its citizens, with a clear majority” in both houses of parliament.

And he hoped it could “go for at least five years straight, without changes, without upheavals, focusing on things to do”.