Italy is finally holding its referendum on constitutional reforms. Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s proposals would reduce the powers and size of the Senate, granting the Chamber of Deputies more authority and transferring prerogatives from regional administrations to the central government in Rome. The changes would, in theory, sever the link between political instability and financial fragility in Italy. Instead, because Renzi has promised to step down if the Italian people vote against the reforms, opposition parties such as the Five Star Movement and the Northern League — and even some members of Renzi’s center-left Democratic Party — have cast the referendum as a chance to force the prime minister and his government to resign.
Even if voters reject the reforms and Renzi resigns, early elections for a new government are not a given. Italian President Sergio Mattarella could ask Parliament to form a new government and appoint a prime minister, probably with the goal of introducing political and economic reforms. The Five Star Movement has said it would not support a caretaker government, but the Democratic Party and its junior coalition partner still control enough seats in Parliament to appoint a new prime minister, provided that they stay united.
Moreover, opinion polls show that the Five Star Movement’s popularity is close to that of the Democratic Party, giving it incentive to avoid early elections that could unseat it. In a potential runoff election between the Democratic Party and the Five Star Movement, all opposition parties could side with the protest party to propel it to victory. This prospect might impel the government to change the rules while it still can. Lorenzo Guerini, the deputy secretary of the Democratic Party, has said that in case of a defeat in the referendum, the party would try to modify the country’s electoral laws so that new elections could be held in summer 2017.
Whether or not the referendum fails and subsequent early elections are held, the possibility that the Five Star Movement will eventually triumph at the national level cannot be discounted, because more and more Italians have grown weary of traditional political parties. Decades of mismanagement and corruption have led to voter mistrust in the establishment parties’ ability to turn around Italy’s tepid economic growth and persistently high unemployment. Still, a government led by the Five Star Movement would face many of the same constraints as its predecessors.