Renzi Steps Down After Italy Rejects Constitutional Reforms

The Italian prime minister resigns after voters reject the constitutional changes he had put to a referendum.

Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi answers questions from reporters in Modena, September 17, 2015
Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi answers questions from reporters in Modena, September 17, 2015 (Palazzo Chigi)

Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi announced his resignation in the early hours of Monday morning after the country rejected constitutional changes he had put to a referendum.

With nearly half the votes counted, the “no” side was leading with close to 60 percent.

Speaking from the Palazzo Chigi in Rome, Renzi said he took “full responsibility” for the reforms’ defeat.

He had earlier vowed to step down if the referendum didn’t go his way.

What’s next?

Renzi is due to tender his resignation to President Sergio Mattarella later on Monday. Mattarella is expected to try to form a new government without calling snap elections.

The ruling parties — Renzi’s Democrats on the left, Nuovo Centrodestra on the right and the Union of the Center in the middle — all have an incentive to keep the legislature going. Polls suggest neither would gain if elections were held in the next few months.

The populist Five Star Movement and the nativist Northern League, which led the opposition against the constitutional reforms, would win more seats. An alliance between them is unlikely, but a government led by either one would put a fright into the European mainstream. Both parties want to take Italy out of the euro and end sanctions on Russia.

Mattarella could give Renzi a fresh mandate, technically allowing him to keep his word, but that seems too clever by half.

More likely, he will ask a technocrat, like economy minister Pier Carlo Padoan, to take over.

Overshadowed reforms

The referendum was nominally about Renzi’s proposal to weaken the Senate. In combination with a separate electoral reform, which would guarantee a majority in the lower house to the most popular party, the change would have made Italy easier to govern.

Now laws routinely bounce back and forth between the two chambers while governments must consist of various parties, each with their own constituencies and preferences. The result is too often paralysis.

But many felt Renzi’s reforms went too far. Conservatives, split between former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, the ruling Nuovo Centrodestra and the Northern League, saw a ploy to keep the Democratic Party in power. Centrists feared permanent one-party rule.

The wisdom of the reforms themselves was overshadowed, however, by voters’ general sense of where the country was headed.

Renzi has pushed through some economic reforms, including a liberalization of the labor market, but growth has remained lackluster and unemployment is still at 11 percent, virtually unchanged from when Renzi took office almost three years ago.

By tying his political future to the outcome of Sunday’s referendum, Renzi galvanized the opposition and turned the plebiscite into one about his premiership. The result was his downfall.