Italy: High turnout for referendum may favour ‘No’ vote

Critics argue reforms place too much power in hands of prime minister Matteo Renzi

World leaders are keeping a close eye on the outcome of a critical Italian constitutional referendum that takes place on Sunday. Hugh Linehan reports.


Italy’s keenly contested constitutional reform referendum sprang an immediate surprise on Sunday when unexpectedly large numbers turned out to vote, defying predictions of widespread absenteeism. By midday, 20 per cent of the 46 million Italians entitled to vote had already done so.

This compares favourably with a referendum in April which would have tightened controls on offshore oil drilling. On that occasion, 8.35 per cent of the electorate had voted by midday. That particular referendum was rendered void because it failed to reach the 50 per cent plus one quorum.

Sunday’s historic referendum, however, does not risk the same fate. Since this vote calls on the electorate to vote on a measure which has already been approved by parliament (but not by a two-thirds majority, hence the referendum), there is no quorum needed.

Many people believe that in this year of Brexit and Trump protest votes, a high turnout will be good for the No campaign. However, that remains to be seen.  This referendum asks Italians if they approve a series of institutional and constitutional reforms, including a significant reduction of the powers of the Senate, intended to streamline and stabilise government.

Strongly opposed

Introduced by the centre-left government of Matteo Renzi – Italy’s dynamic 41-year-old prime minister, nominated in February 2014 with a reform mandate – these changes have met with determined opposition. Constitutionalists and Eurosceptic opposition parties alike, including the anti-immigrant Northern League, the Five Star Protest Movement and Forza Italia, distrust Renzi’s reform package, arguing that it will place too much power in the prime minister’s hands.

When he arrived at his local polling booth at Pontassieve, near Florence, yesterday morning, Mr Renzi was taken by surprise as he stood in line with his wife Agnese, waiting to cast his vote.

A woman said to him: “Tell me, Mr Prime Minister, have you decided which way you will vote?”

“Well, I’ll have to think about it for a bit,” he replied jokingly.

Northern League leader Matteo Salvini, voting in Milan yesterday morning, expressed the hope that Mr Renzi would lose the vote.

“God willing, it will be all over and tomorrow a new era begins . . . Political life will become normal again, we will start to dialogue and discuss the real problems of people and the self-appointed king of the world [Renzi] will be gone . . .”

Indelible pencils

Inevitably, the day did not pass without drama. Voters in Ostia, Rome, Genoa, Salerno and other places complained that regulation indelible pencils had not been used in their polling stations. The Ministry of the Interior has denied any such problem, even though in some cases, fresh supplies of indelible pencils have been made available.

The pencils and the handling of Italy’s four million foreign-based voters have already prompted complaints of electoral fraud. In the meantime, such is the uncertain nature of this vote, no one is quite clear which side will benefit most from the now guaranteed high turnout.