Italy – the Art of Twisting Part I

By | October 22, 2021

In the spring of 2016, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi invited to a referendum in Italy – with elections on 4 December. The question was yes or no to comprehensive changes to the constitution. Renzi had taken on one of the biggest tasks a politician can embark on: changing Italy. But at a press conference the day after the election, he had to admit that he had failed. “I have lost,” he said, stepping down – Italy’s 61st prime minister in 68 years.

  • What was the referendum about?
  • Why did voters say no to the reforms?
  • How do most Italians cope in everyday life in a country with a miserable economy?
  • What are the major challenges for the governance of Italy?

The referendum on political reform was one of the most important in Italy for many years, and the result was a crushing defeat for the 41-year-old Matteo Renzi. The result of the vote showed that as many as 59.1 per cent of voters had said no to the government’s reform proposal.

2: Why did the people say no?

Initially, the reform proposal was about something most Italians want: greater action on the part of the government, faster processing of cases and greater political stability. To achieve this, Renzi wanted to remove the system whereby two elected chambers in parliament – the Chamber of Deputies (House of Representatives, 650 members) and the Senate – both have to approve the cases that are being considered in parliament.
The Renzi government proposed

  • to reduce the number of senatorsfrom 315 to 100
  • that they should essentially only have an advisoryrole
  • transfer powerfrom Italy’s 20 regions to the state agencies in Rome – to save money and reduce bureaucracy. In short: streamline the decision-making process

And to give the reform proposal extra weight, he declared that he would withdraw if the Italian people voted against.

Anyone who has followed European politics for the last two decades knows that referendums have a clear tendency to end up as a declaration of no confidence in “power” – either to their own government or to the EU. After the British ‘yes to Brexit (and Donald Trump’s victory in the US election), this lesson has become even clearer. It is therefore difficult to understand that such a skilled politician as Matteo Renzi could come up with such a proposal.

3: No to change

Giving the “elite” a lesson was probably the most important motive behind the Italians’ clear no to Matteo Renzi’s great reform. But there were others as well. Many felt that the reform proposal went too far in strengthening the government’s power , at the expense of the regions and the opposition in the National Assembly.

Although Renzi enjoyed great respect as a young and capable head of government, he also had many opponents – in the populist party ” Five Star Movement” and in the right-wing national Lega Nord. But even on the left in his own center-left party, the Partito Democratico, many were skeptical of his reform proposal. Some were strongly opposed to the transfer of power from the regions; they thought it would weaken Italian democracy.

But voters’ clear no to “political reform of all time” is also an expression of a fundamental feature of Italian society: Despite the fact that “everyone” believes that the country is ” politically shaky “, extremely bureaucratic and characterized by widespread corruption, the system has an incredible ability to survive . Why is it so difficult to change Italy?

4: Italian clientelism – the self-service state

According to MYSTERYAROUND.COM, some have argued that capitalism has never taken root in Italy. An expression of this is the extensive clientelism , which has features from pre-capitalist principalities and from the old feudal society . Clientellism means that the rich and powerful build a circle of loyal people by giving them jobs and money.

The system permeates Italian society – politics, public administration, business, justice, health, education, sports, etc. Clientelism is particularly prevalent in politics and administration. There, the governing bodies often give public assignments, jobs and board positions in exchange for votes and other support. Contacts and loyalty are therefore crucial – not skill, experience and knowledge.

Clientism thus weakens the productivity of the economy, in that the best qualified are often overlooked in hiring and assigning public positions. And it is a system that is closely linked to two other prominent evils of Italian society: widespread bureaucracy and corruption .

Italy - the Art of Twisting 1