ROME—On Sunday, Italians will be asked to vote on major legislative reforms in a referendum that, if it passes, would be the most progressive move Italy has ever made in streamlining its famously top-heavy government.
Or, in the far more likely scenario that it fails if the latest polls are any indication, a defeat will send the country into yet another spiral into chaos that could give power to former comedian Beppe Grillo, whose policies might make president elect Donald Trump look mild by comparison.
The referendum on reforms is the brainchild of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who leads Italy’s 63rd government in 68 years. Renzi, Italy’s youngest-ever leader at the age of 41, elbowed his way into office in a typically Italian maneuver that had nothing to do with a ballot back in 2014, when he ousted Enrico Letta, who had come to power after the replacing Mario Monti, who was the technocrat appointed to replace Silvio Berlusconi when he resigned in a humiliating scandal that involved sex, taxes and bunga-bunga in 2011.
The last time Italians elected a prime minister was in 2008, when they chose Berlusconi for the third time. An election in 2013 was inconclusive, which lead to the conundrum Italy now finds itself in.
Sunday’s reform referendum would have been a simple vote on Italy’s obvious need to update some of its archaic governmental practices if Renzi hadn’t self-admittedly erred in making the referendum about his own untested popularity. Risking what is clearly everything, Renzi said he would resign if the referendum is defeated, even though a number of heavy hitters, including President Barack Obama, have urged him to stay on, no matter what happens Sunday. “It’s yes or never,” is Renzi’s favorite campaign promise. “You are playing with the next 20 years with this vote.”
If the referendum fails and Renzi keeps his promise to bail, the clear winner would be Grillo, who won’t hold office himself because of a 2003 conviction for vehicular manslaughter, which disqualifies him by his own political mantra that felons can’t be in parliament. But he is the consummate sideline puppeteer, and his party, which is the second most popular after Renzi's, could fill the vacuum that a Renzi departure would create. If that happens, it is almost sure that Italy would eventually hold its own version of an Itexit vote to leave the European Union, which has long been Grillo’s anti-Europe battle cry. Hypothetical polls show that Italians learned a lot from Brexit and would likely vote to stay in the EU if the vote were held now, but who’s to say what a year of Grillo propaganda could do to turn that tide. His favorite campaign cry is one that might sound familiar to Americans. “Vote with your gut,” he says. “Not with your brain.”
It must be noted that Grillo’s reach expands far beyond anti-Euro sentiment. According to a thoroughly researched Buzzfeed investigation, led by respected Italian journalist Alberto Nardelli, Grillo is apparently the godfather of a fake news and Russian meddling phenomenon in Europe, having “built a sprawling network of websites and social media accounts that are spreading fake news, conspiracy theories, and pro-Kremlin stories to millions of people.”
On his blog, Grillo denied the Buzzfeed charges as the ultimate “fake news,” but convincing evidence points to Grillo’s “network of collection of profitable sites that describe themselves as ‘independent news’ outlets but are actually controlled by the party leadership” that makes Breitbart look relatively amateurish by comparison.
Grillo, it must be noted, applauded Trump’s upset victory, calling it a massive “fuck off” to the global establishment, and vowing that he and his party can do the same in Italy. His drumbeat against the referendum has been steadfast, and Renzi and his referendum’s defeat would be Grillo’s clear victory, even though it might not be immediate.
If the referendum does fail, Italy’s president Sergio Mattarella could offer a short-term mandate to Renzi to form a technocratic government until official elections, which are currently slated for early 2018 are held, though Renzi has been clear that he’s not interested in anything less than a full mandate. Mattarella might then appoint a senior minister from Renzi’s government, but whatever happens, it would be short-lived. He could also call snap elections, though no one from any party on any side is vying for that.
If the referendum passes, Italy must essentially reinvent itself to navigate what would be unchartered waters with an efficient, centralized and streamlined government—something that has never existed in the country since the reign of Benito Mussolini, which is hardly a shining example and one that Renzi is quick to dispute. The popular joke in Rome is that if the referendum passes, the primary task will be nailing Renzi, known for his egomania, to the ground to get anything done.
Either way, the ripples will be felt across an already shell-shocked Europe that is wary after the Brexit vote and nervous about what the election of Trump really means. While Italy’s reform referendum carries neither the weight of Brexit nor the impact of an American presidential decision, it is still the next big litmus test on the global rise of populism and, according to many, the next domino to fall.