A Slap in the Face

Phil Edwards · Italy’s Referendum

Under Italian law, an 'abrogative' referendum – which asks voters if they think a particular item of legislation should be repealed – can be called by anyone, subject to judicial approval and proof of popular support. Three of the proposals in the referendum held earlier this week came from the anti-corruption party Italia dei Valori (roughly ‘the Italy with Principles’), the other from a group campaigning against water privatisation. One of IdV’s proposals was also about water privatisation; the others concerned nuclear power and the ‘legitimate impediment’ law, passed last year, which allowed government ministers to say they were too busy to appear in court, however serious the charges.

Of the 17 previous referendums on 64 proposals, only 21 passed. (The first, in 1974, asked if divorce, recently legalised, should be banned again. The electorate thought not.) Turnout is key: if less than half the electorate votes, the result doesn’t count. Supporters of the status quo often don't bother mobilising the No vote; demobilising voters works just as well. Silvio Berlusconi stayed at home this time; so did Umberto Bossi of the Lega Nord. But 54 per cent of the electorate went to the ballot box, and more than 94 per cent of them voted for every proposal. Not only did more than half the electorate vote, more than half voted in favour.

In legislative terms, this is only a minor setback for Berlusconi. Losing the ‘legitimate impediment’ defence is a blow, as he has so many court cases pending – or, as his supporters see it, so many enemies among the judiciary – but it's not fatal; there are many more delaying tactics where that came from.

Politically, however, the referendum is a problem for the prime minister. Berlusconi's patrimonial populism, appealing variously to prejudice, self-interest and personal loyalty, has been an extraordinarily powerful recipe for gaining and keeping power, but it rests on his mastery of two more basic political skills. He has always known how to stitch an alliance together and how to get an election won. In his heyday he was both the boss of a powerful political machine and the figurehead of a broad alliance, incorporating the successors to the Christian Democrat and neo-Fascist parties as well as the xenophobic populists of the Lega Nord.

That alliance has gradually flaked away; most of the post-Fascists and ex-Christian Democrats have abandoned Berlusconi and regrouped as a centre-right 'Third Pole'. The ability to win now seems to have deserted him as well. First he tried to have the referendum ruled unconstitutional; then he tried to reduce turnout by holding it separately from last month's local elections. The result was a massive defeat: Roberto Calderoli of the Lega Nord called it a sberla (‘slap in the face’) for the government.

Or rather, for Berlusconi: the Lega Nord's response is to be less deferential towards the great election-winner and to raise the price of its alliance. Other reactions are more hostile. For Pierluigi Bersani, leader of the centre-left Partito Democratico, this too was a referendum on divorce – ‘between the government and the country’ – and Berlusconi should resign immediately. The independent leftist Nichi Vendola (think Peter Tatchell meets Ken Livingstone) says that the mood of the country has changed, and Berlusconism has reached the end of the line.

But perhaps the most telling analysis came from Antonio di Pietro of IdV, the prime mover of the referendum. Di Pietro, who’s no leftist, criticised Bersani for 'politicising' the result, stressing the scale and the geographical consistency of the vote. Di Pietro argues that voters on the right as well as the left have expressed their belief in public goods remaining in public hands; in the law being equal for all; and, above all, in the referendum process, over and against the manoeuvres of political operators like Berlusconi. If so, perhaps Berlusconism really is over. The prime minister has dwindling political resources and few allies who are not personal followers – and the lawyers are closing in.


  • 17 June 2011 at 7:58am
    Geoff Roberts says:
    How often have we read about the End of the Berlusconi Era? Don't underrate his ability to survive. Much more important is, who will take over?

    • 17 June 2011 at 8:36pm
      Phil Edwards says: @ Geoff Roberts
      I take the point, but the Berlusconi era has to end some time - and it'll have to end in defeat or resignation, unless he stays in office until he dies. Each successive narrow escape has left him weaker; I really think he'll have difficulty getting out of this one.

      I don't think another Right government is a runner, either. According to the most recent opinion poll Berlusconi's party still has 27% of the vote - compared with the Lega on 9% and the 'Third Pole' on 13% - but I can't see the party retaining anywhere near that level of support with (say) Angelino Alfano or Franco Frattini as leader. This is not to say that the next government will be left-wing in any shape or form - it will probably include at least some of the 'Third Pole', which is pretty far right in most contexts. But Berlusconi's special combination of charisma, thuggish anti-Communism, sleaze, know-nothing populism, corruption, nostalgia for Fascism and incompetence is finally on the way out. Touch wood.

    • 18 June 2011 at 7:54am
      Geoff Roberts says: @ Phil Edwards
      Touch wood is right. I think it's true to say that Italy has not had honest, competent government since the war. Prodi is honest (I think) but his administration hardly sparkled with bold policies. Isn't true to say that only in the cities in which the CP held power that there has been an attempt - at least - to govern honestly? The alliance between the politicians, the mafia and the big industrialists must be broken if any sort of viable government is to be formed. And I don't see that happening yet. The many demonstrations and protests lead nowhere, the younger generation is in despair, is cynically withdrawn or completely indifferent to the situation. I see a bad moon rising.

    • 18 June 2011 at 3:51pm
      penruddock says: @ Geoff Roberts
      Lots of qualifications needed here, I think, beginning with the notion of competent governments (depends on what you mean by “competent”), and going on to the alleged alliance between the politicians and the Mafia – largely a matter of conjecture rather than certainty – and the politicians and big business (Confindustria, the Italian CBI, is openly hostile towards Berlusconi; Marchionne, the CEO of FIAT, can barely disguise his contempt for Mr B, and so on). Who will take over if and when Mr B goes? Much will depend on the timing of his departure, but a “technicians’ government” consisting mainly of non-political experts, such as the Ciampi administration that took over in 1993, is a real possibility, especially if the economic climate in Italy worsens still further on account of “contagion” from the current financial crisis in the European periphery.