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It's Too Simplistic To Call Italy's Referendum Result An Anti-Establishment, Populist Revolt

05/12/2016 11:15 GMT | Updated 05/12/2016 11:15 GMT
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Like Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, the outcome of the Italian referendum has been a great surprise, but for the opposite reason: polls suggested that the result would be very close and instead there has been a decisive and unequivocal result.

Suggestions that the vote has been an "anti-establishment, populist revolt" are too simplistic. The division between Yes and No cross-cut the usual political and social divisions. The No side mobilised people on the left and the right; populists and anti-populists; members of the liberal elite and those in less exalted circumstances. Who was the establishment figure? Certainly not Renzi: he sought to sell his proposed reforms as part of a campaign to sweep away vested interests. His appeals - to reduce the powers of the Senate, to reduce the costs of politics, to cut the number of parliamentarians - were all couched in classic populist terms.

Anti-establishment sentiment is only a part of what the No vote was about: the populist Five-star Movement (M5s) gets only about 30% of the 75% or so who turn out to vote. Rather, the vote was the expression of a range of different types of No: a No to the specific constitutional reforms being proposed; a No to the political elites in general; a No to the current economic and social malaise; above all a No to the Renzi government. For Renzi had staked his entire future on the outcome by framing the vote as a plebiscite on him and his executive.

It was a vote that pitted against all-comers a prime minister who had been able to govern because there had been no alternative - a prime minister opposed on one side by the centre right, on the other side by the Five-star Movement (M5s), neither of which would have anything to do with the other. Now that this 'rag bag' of forces (to use Renzi's own expression) has been able to come together in a straightforward yes-or-no contest Renzi has - for the moment - been ousted from power.

This afternoon, Renzi will travel to the presidential palace to tender his resignation. The options available to the President include inviting Renzi to return to Parliament to verify, through confidence votes, that the existing government has the necessary support to carry on, and conferring on Renzi a mandate to form a new government.

A continuation of the Renzi experience is not to be ruled out; for his political capital has not been entirely depleted, to the contrary. He leads an increasingly "personalised" and "presidentialised" party. And if the No vote belongs entirely to none of his opponents, the 40% that voted "Yes" belongs entirely to him. It is a vote share that corresponds exactly to the proportion he won at the European elections of 2014, hailed as a great victory for his party. His problem would be holding together his coalition with the small centre parties with only fourteen months of the legislature to run.

The Chamber's electoral law must now be revisited. Introduced on the assumption that the constitutional reforms would pass, it will lead to chaos without them. It has been seen as a gift to the M5s - though they opposed it saying it concentrated too much power in the hands of the Prime Minister. In a breath-taking volte-face, they now say they want immediate elections based on the law as it stands. In that case the Chamber and the Senate will almost certainly be composed very differently - a single party having a majority of seats in the former but not in the latter. So either the M5s are saying that they are willing, on their own, to assume the responsibilities of government, or that they want a governing alliance, and it is not clear which. Either way, it is an open question whether a party that draws support from across the political spectrum and has hitherto been a party of protest, would be able to remain cohesive in face of the pressures of governing.

So do not expect an M5s-engineered exit from the euro any time soon. It is highly unlikely that the President would agree to dissolve Parliament until the electoral-law had been thoroughly re-drafted. Paradoxically the referendum has brought some certainty in a sense precisely because it has been decisive: it has sent a very clear "no change" message. It means the continuation of "stable instability" - a style of Italian politics with which everyone is familiar. It is for this reason that we have so far not seen the kind of financial market instability that might have been expected had the result been much closer.

James Newell is Professor of Politics in the School of Arts and Media at the University of Salford