No, Italy’s referendum is not the same as Trump or Brexit

As the world digested the news of Italian PM Matteo Renzi's resignation following the rejection of his proposed set of reforms, the referendum has been painted by some as 2016's third 'anti-establishment' revolt.

No, Italy's referendum is not the same as Trump or Brexit
Matteo Renzi speaking as he announced his resignation on Sunday night. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

While there are some obvious similarities between the victory for No in the referendum and two other political upsets of the year – Britain's vote to leave the EU and Donald Trump's election as US president – there are also several crucial differences.

“Like Brexit and Trump, the outcome of the Italian referendum has been a great surprise, but for the opposite reason,” explained James Newall, a UK-based professor and expert in Italian politics. “Polls suggested that the result would be very close and instead there has been a decisive and unequivocal result.”

Indeed, the final count showed that Italians rejected the proposed reforms by 60 to 40 percent, following a 68 percent turnout – extremely high by Italian standards. Unlike Brexit, where the small margin has led to calls for a second referendum from some quarters, the Italian vote is, as Renzi acknowledged on Sunday night, “extraordinarily clear”.

Exactly how we should best interpret the result is less clear.

The country's Eurosceptics have called it a victory for “the people” and “democracy”, but Newall warned against interpreting the result as an “anti-establishment, populist revolt”.

“The division between Yes and No cut across the usual political and social divisions,” he explained. “The No side mobilized people on the left and the right, including members of the liberal elite and those in less exalted circumstances.

“Matteo Renzi wasn’t an establishment figure and had in fact been proposing reforms to sweep away vested interests.”

Indeed, it was difficult to say exactly who represented the 'establishment' in the referendum, and Renzi attempted to portray his reforms as 'anti-establishment', given that he argued they would cut bureaucracy and parliamentarians' salaries.

Ask No voters to explain their choice, and many simply argued that the government should be focusing on more important things. One young woman in Naples was typical of many when she said that cutting the number of senators “isn't really going to change things” and argued that the government should focus on increasing job security for the young.

A 21-year-old student, Elena Piccolo, said Renzi had made a mistake in personalizing the vote, which simply “made himself a focus for all the disenchantment in the country, including that of young people.” She also planned to vote No. 

And while it's likely that many others voted No to express dissatisfaction with Renzi's administration, many others had sincere objections to the reforms themselves.

Several constitutional experts and politicians – including prominent figures from Renzi's own Democratic Party – thought the changes would leave too much power in the hands of the premier, removing checks and balances.

Others were unimpressed by the lack of scope in the reforms: British financial weekly The Economist backed the No campaign, arguing that a technocratic government would be best placed to come up with “real reforms”, including changes to the education and judiciary systems.

If it's uncertain exactly what the electorate were voting against – the establishment, Renzi himself, or the reforms on the table – there is even more confusion over what Italians were voting for.

British Europhobic tabloid the Daily Mail erroneously referred to the referendum on constitutional change as an “EU referendum”, saying “now for Italexit!”.

Members of British rightwing party Ukip, including its former leader Nigel Farage who campaigned for Brexit, celebrated the victory, with Farage saying Italy's vote was “more about the Euro than constitutional change”.

There's no denying that the referendum and Renzi's resignation will have consequences for the European Union, and Brussels had backed the PM's reforms, but Italy is still a long way from fresh elections, let alone questioning its membership of the EU or the euro.

It's true that one of the main beneficiaries of Renzi's defeat is likely to be Beppe Grillo and his anti-establishment Five Star Movement Party, which spearheaded the campaign for No and is openly critical of the EU.

However, while the Movement has called for a referendum on Italy's membership of the euro, Grillo stressed in a blog post after the UK's Brexit vote that his party believed in the Union and wanted to reform it from within.

Furthermore, the party would have to win a general election in order to be able to hold any referendum. Grillo has called for immediate elections following Renzi's resignation, but it's unlikely that these will be held until 2018; first, Italy needs to update is electoral law.

“There's no reason to be immediately alarmed about the future of the EU, though whether that remains the case will depend on developments over the coming days, weeks and months,” Italian politics expert James Newall said.

On the other side of the political spectrum, Italy's far right were quick to claim the result as a victory all their own – despite the fact that it was a cross-party campaign, including prominent figures from Renzi's own Democratic Party.

Matteo Salvini, the leader of Italy's far-right Northern League, sent out a series of tweets celebrating the result, including one which read: “Long live Trump, long live Putin, long live Le Pen and long live the Northern League!”

And Marine Le Pen, the leader of France's far-right National Front, congratulated “our friend” Salvini on the No victory.

However, as Newall notes, one thing Italians certainly didn't vote for was radical change.

“The result sends a clear message of 'business as usual', because the reforms have been voted down. Paradoxically, the decisiveness of the result means we will likely see less uncertainty than might have been expected – as to what happens next, we will just have to wait and see,” he said.

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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”.