Matteo Renzi has been making a last-ditch effort to rally support for a yes vote in the referendum on Sunday. Photograph: Marco Ravagli/Barcroft Images
theguardian.com/world/ – Italy referendum defeat would complete Matteo Renzi’s rapid downfall After taking office with hopes of enacting change, the PM has failed to gain the trust of voters who see politics as a scapegoat
When Matteo Renzi strode into the Italian prime minister’s residence of Palazzo Chigi 34 months ago, having outmanoeuvred the old guard in his partyto become the country’s leader, he was widely regarded as Italy’s last best hope.
The former mayor of Florence was a maverick reformer with big plans to turn around Italy’s moribund economy and – if he played his cards right – would stand at the helm of a centre-left majority that seemed strong enough to crush the rising Five Star Movement (M5S) and its angry anti-establishment rhetoric, and bury conservatives who were still reeling from the political demise of Silvio Berlusconi.
What are Italians voting for in Sunday’s referendum?The vote is about political reforms that will radically change the Italian parliament by essentially eradicating the power of the Senate. The body will be reduced from more than 300 elected senators to just 100 appointed by regional councils and only able to weigh in on big items like changes to the Italian constitution. The changes will make it much easier for any controlling government to pass legislation, but have been criticised as a dangerous power grab by critics who say it will give far too much unchecked power to the prime minister’s office.
“Today we have to have a huge ambition, which is to think that Italy cannot exist for the coming months and coming years in a situation of uncertainty, instability, quagmire, hesitation,” Renzi said at the time.
“He is liked by Europe– now a little less – and by the Italian elite. He’s an emblem of rich Tuscany, of the good life, of eating well,” said Marta, a middle-class, middle-aged woman from Pontassieve, the Tuscan town where Renzi lives.
After crisscrossing the Italian peninsula for weeks trying to rally support for a yes vote, Renzi ended his campaign in Florence on Friday, where his career in politics began. The day started with good news, after it was reported that40% of eligible Italians abroad cast ballotsin the race, a voting bloc that is believed to heavily favour the prime minister. Renzi also made a last-ditch effort to win momentum in southern Italy, with stops in Reggio Calabria and Palermo, where the sì (yes) camp hoped it could sway undecided voters.
Renzi is famous for extolling the culture of his native Tuscany, but in interviews with locals here, he is hardly celebrated as a hero. Instead, some told the Guardian they lacked faith in a man who is seen as a “marketing executive”, rather than a solid statesman.
Standing beside Marta was her friend Cecilia – neither wanted to give their full names – who recalled her disappointment that Renzi did not do more to cut perks for government officials. Even though he curtailed the use of “blue cars”, the chauffeured vehicles reserved for politicians, Cecilia criticised Renzi’s decision to lease a new presidential jet at a reported cost of €1m (£840,000) a month.
“Trust in them? In the left, in the right? Not at all. Nothing,” she said.
The prime minister could still pull off a surprise win on Sunday. The latest official polls before a blackout showed he had a five percentage point deficit, but one-quarter of Italian voters were still undecided about whether or not to support sweeping changes to Italy’s parliamentary system that Renzi has argued would make the country more stable and put it on a stronger footing to adopt reforms.
On the campaign trail, Renzi seems to relish the challenge, but it is clear that he is somewhat exasperated by the attacks that have been wielded against him by the populistM5S.
At a rally in Pisa in front of a friendly crowd, a jovial, joking Renzi last week unveiled an elaborate PowerPoint presentation with arguments defending the constitutional reform.
But then – seemingly out of the blue – a large map of South America appeared on the large screen. In September, M5S’s Luigi Di Maio declared that a vote for the referendum was like a vote for “Pinochet in Venezuela”.
After poking fun at Di Maio’s mistake – Pinochet was the longtime Chilean dictator, and Renzi elaborately pointed out where each country was located on the large map – a photograph then appeared that showed Renzi during a visit to Chile’s capital, Santiago. He was standing in a museum in front of hundreds of photographs of political prisoners who had been tortured and killed during Pinochet’s bloody regime.
“These people died. They were tortured. Have some respect for our country,” Renzi said, before swiftly moving on.
If he loses Sunday’s referendum and resigns – despite the public appeal by Obama during a recent visit to Washingtonthat he should “stick around” no matter the outcome – Renzi’s fall will be blamed on factors in and out of his control.
There was no evidence of wrongdoing, but it allowed Renzi to be portrayed as a typical Italian politician.
But it is Renzi’s rapid downfall – even if he wins on Sunday, it will likely be by the slimmest of margins – that remains somewhat of a mystery, even to seasoned veterans of Italian politics such as Giovanni Orsina, a professor of politics at Luiss Guido Carli University in Rome.
He partly blames Italians for the political phenomenon, and what he calls their growing impatience with the political process and willingness to blame the political class for everything, even when there are no obvious alternatives.
This impatience has played into the hands of populists such as M5S and was barely understood by Renzi.
“The speed at which Renzi turned from being the young energetic transformer to being the symbol of the ‘establishment’ is an incredible sign of the times,” Orsina said.
“Politics has become the scapegoat for everything that doesn’t work, and this has happened in less than a year.”