Italian referendum: Yes and No sides give it their last shot

Accusations and insults exchanged on final day of a bitter campaign over political reform

Matteo Renzi: The Italian prime minister promised to respect a No vote, though he said it would be “a pity”. Photograph: Reuters/Stefano Rellandini

Matteo Renzi: The Italian prime minister promised to respect a No vote, though he said it would be “a pity”. Photograph: Reuters/Stefano Rellandini

 

Insults and mutual accusations marked Friday’s closing stages of a referendum campaign that could end the career of Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi and cause further instability to the European Union.

Italians vote on Sunday on a package of constitutional reforms that Mr Renzi says are necessary to make Italy’s erratic system of government more effective.

The measures include a proposal to abolish the elected upper house senate and replace it with a chamber of regional representatives – with much reduced powers.

Mr Renzi (41) argues this will reduce legislative blockages. His opponents claim the changes are a power grab by the prime minister, who assumed office nearly three years ago with a promise of sweeping political and economic reforms.

He has said he will resign if he loses Sunday’s referendum, ushering in a renewed period of political instability in which Mr Renzi’s centre-left, pro-EU Democratic Party could be ousted from power by a combination of Eurosceptic alternative parties.

All of the main opposition groups – the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, the right-wing Northern League and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia – have called for a No vote in the referendum.

The Five Star Movement, led by comedian Beppe Grillo, has campaigned for Italy to exit the euro zone. Concerns that Five Star could be poised to lead a new Italian government are already fuelling uncertainty about the euro’s stability.

No to Yes

The most recent opinion polls on the referendum, published two weeks ago before pre-vote ban on polls took effect, indicated that Mr Renzi will be defeated.  

If he was worried by the polls, however, he was not showing it on Friday during a hectic campaign schedule in the south of the country, where pollsters have been predicting a high No vote.

“The country has finally taken the right direction, and with a Yes vote will keep going on that road,” Mr Renzi said in Palermo, Sicily. “If the No wins, there are no locusts at the gate, but the old guard will be back.”

His final stop on Friday night was on safe home territory as he returned to his native Florence.  

Mr Renzi said that if the Yes vote won, Italy would be the “strongest country in Europe” next year because both France and Germany would be distracted by general elections. He also promised to respect a No vote, even if he felt it would be “a pity”.

Dismissed endorsements

Matteo Salvini, leader of the the Northern League, was also on the attack, dismissing endorsements received by Mr Renzi from such as US president Barack Obama and German chancellor Angela Merkel.

Italians, Mr Salvini said, would decide for themselves, “not for Mrs Merkel, nor Brussels, nor the bankers”.

Mr Grillo wrapped up his campaign in Turin, the last stop in a 47-city tour. Saying that Italy had been traumatised by the divisive referendum, he urged people to vote No, calling it a “vote from the stomach”.  

For his part, the grand old man of Italian politics, Silvio Berlusconi, told state TV that, in the event of a victory for the No side, he would be ready to sit down to negotiations on Monday with “responsible people” in order to write a new electoral law and new constitutional reforms.