Renzi’s allies call for early elections after referendum defeat

Italian PD politicians seek quick political comeback but president may resist move

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has said he will resign following a defeat in a referendum on constitutional reform. Video: Reuters


Allies of Matteo Renzi, Italy’s outgoing centre-left prime minister, have joined opposition calls for fresh elections in the wake of his referendum defeat, making it more likely that the country will go to the polls to choose a new parliament next year.

Influential politicians in Mr Renzi’s Democratic party (PD) see early elections as a way to make a quick political comeback after a stinging setback in Sunday’s vote on changes to Italy’s constitution.

“There’s a large front within the Democratic party which is pushing for this,” said one official close to Mr Renzi.

Parliamentary elections are not due until early 2018 but the scale of the defeat suffered by Mr Renzi, the 41-year-old former mayor of Florence, has triggered growing calls for voters to be allowed to pick a new leader with a strong political mandate as rapidly as possible.

Before the referendum the two leading anti-establishment opposition parties, the Five Star Movement and the Northern League, had urged new elections in the event of a No win. They have repeated those calls since the vote.

The fact that large parts of the PD now agree increases the likelihood that any interim government would most likely be short-lived and limited in its scope.

“We don’t want to waste any time,” said Ettore Rosato, a senior Democratic lawmaker in the lower house of parliament, on Italian television on Monday night.

Angelino Alfano, Mr Renzi’s centre-right interior minister, added that he could imagine elections as early as February. “I am increasingly convinced that . . . this legislature is coming to its conclusion,” he said.

Mr Renzi’s spokesman declined to say whether the prime minister had settled on this strategy. From the point of view of the Democratic party, support for early elections would help it to fend off any accusation that it wants to cling to power.

“These guys want to stick around for another year and a half,” said Matteo Salvini, the leader of the Northern League, on Italian television, arguing that such a plan was being hatched “on the phone lines between Rome and Brussels, Brussels and Rome”.

Proportional representation

One obstacle for a move to quick elections is that this may face resistance from Sergio Mattarella, the Italian president, who is the main powerbroker in the country’s politics and is known for being cautious.

A further difficulty from a practical point of view is that Italy’s electoral law for the lower house may first need to be changed, from a system that awards bonus seats to the winning party to one based on proportional representation. The electoral law is becoming increasingly unpopular with the main political parties and could in any case be struck down in a constitutional court ruling that is due in coming months.

Though some analysts have cautioned that talks on changing the electoral law could be long and complicated, Mr Rosato said that there were “all the tools” to move on it very quickly.

The debate over early elections will be at the top of the agenda as Mr Renzi meets members of his Democratic party on Wednesday in a showdown with left-wing dissidents seeking to oust him as party secretary.

Francesco Boccia, the head of the budget committee in the lower chamber of parliament, called on Monday for a renewal of the top ranks of the party.

Other PD members are expected to stick by Mr Renzi – potentially sparking a battle for the future of the party. “The left has been our main opponent and it’s nothing new. The past is coming back,” warned Francesca Puglisi, a PD senator from Bologna. “Tomorrow we have an important and delicate meeting, in which we will strongly ask our secretary, Matteo Renzi, to keep leading the Democratic party,” she added.

One of the difficulties for Mr Renzi in staying on as PD chief is that he would be forced to support the new government, which must take on some unpopular tasks, such as dealing with Italy’s troubled banks and negotiating a new electoral law. For this reason, Mr Renzi’s backers say he may want to move quickly to a party congress early in the year and then rapidly to new elections.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016