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Salvator Murtas

Salvatore Murtas is a media professional who blogs at The Murtas Collection.

How to explain Renzi’s defeat in the referendum? In truth, it’s got little to do with the constitutional reform he proposed. The overblown rhetoric of saving the principles of the constitution dating back to 1948 was all too apparent.

To the aware observer, the crushing popular vote of almost 60 per cent (with over 65 per cent turnout) that rejected the reform is nothing more than a reaction to his arrogant, self-referential, disloyal, untrustworthy, dishonest, Machiavellian way of doing politics. Something he always claimed not only to be against, but that needed to change.

At the beginning of his bid to climb the stagnating, self-referential echelons of national politics, Matteo Renzi – inspiringly nicknamed rottamatore (scrapper) – represented the long overdue need for change of an out-dated, crony power system divided into Cold War-era dynamics of left and right.

A young, modernising force called to finally lead Italy into the 21st century, a breath of fresh air supposed to break with the old system and turn Italian politics on its head. The new-breed that leads the country forward.

Brought in to form the government by then President of the Republic Giorgio Napolitano in February 2014, Renzi committed the original sin of his short spell in power. Never elected to Parliament (which is in itself a precedent) before becoming the youngest Prime Minister in Italian history aged 39, Renzi promised he would never accept the role of Prime Minister without going through a general election.

Instead, once selected as Secretary of the Partito Democratico – the majority party in Parliament – he forced his predecessor, then Prime Minister Enrico Letta, to present his resignation to Napolitano after gathering the support of his parliamentary party, despite having reassured him of his full support only a few days before.

Backstabbing, Machiavellian politics at its best – something reminiscent of the worst Prima Repubblica manoeuvring, completely at odds with someone wanting change.

Once in power, Renzi was swift to take on the challenge of constitutional reform, the basis of the mandate he received from the President of the Republic, yet completely failing to address far more important issues crippling Italy: fixing the country’s troubled economy, worrying banking and financial system, haemorrhaging social state, Machiavellian legal system, and the widespread corruption.

Reforming Italy takes uncompromising moral values, courage to take unpopular decisions, political clout and statesmanship, and ultimately the awareness that it will incontrovertibly mean the end of one’s political career. Something which obviously proved too much for the ambitious Prime Minister.

Also, a series of blunders (i.e. the introduction of the bail-in measure to rescue indebted banks by making its creditors and depositors take a loss on their holdings) and populist measures (the “distribution” of €80 to millions of Italians before crucial local elections) smacked of the old Italian way of appeasing, compromising, crony hand-outs that we were supposed to have finished with under Renzi.

Where was the courageous, forward-looking politician who promised to break with the old power structure and lobbies, fix Italy’s economy, introduce meritocracy and social justice, when unemployment figures soared to sky-high levels, and measures to save the banks leaving depositors deprived of their life-savings were passed overnight?

Anger started to build among the electorate, even within supporters of his own party, quickly eroding the consensus he initially managed to instil among the younger section of society.

Same old, same old, as the rottamatore revealed his true self, employing the entire rulebook and tools of the old political class, only coated with a brash, modern, tweet-loving veneer of change. And it became all too apparent when Renzi abandoned the democratic principles of cross-parliamentarian participation and consensus necessary to change the constitution, and made full use of his parliamentary majority to force the reform through the parliament.

A sense of almightiness led Renzi to force the change of as many as 47 articles (of 139) of the constitution, all in the name of modernisation of the country. But his momentum stopped when he had to take the constitutional reform through the referendum, as the changes were approved by less than two thirds of the two Houses.

And with his momentum coming to a halt, he found himself in the position of having to bet his political future on its result.

How is it conceivable to propose a Yes/No referendum for matters of such difficulty and importance on 47 articles, summed up in five headlines? Was it really necessary to change 47 articles of the constitution to address the immediate problems that stifle Italy’s governance, when the role of the two Houses, the number of Senators, the roles of central and regional governments and what they legislate on, pretty much would have done it?

When he personalised the referendum, pledging to resign in case of defeat, he effectively turned it into a political question and it all came undone for him.

The need for change and reform is not in question. Politicians from all parts of the political spectrum and the population are absolutely aware of it. But in the end, Renzi proved to be not-so-new after all, displaying all the flaws of old-style Italian politics, surrendering to the interests of the national interest groups and international financial elites.

The reason for his defeat lies not so much in the substance of the reform (dozens of experts argued for and against, and I seriously doubt that all 33 million voters read it and understood its intricacies) but in the form: trying to disguise a healthy (and God knows how vital) reform with measures mainly aimed at political gain. This is another old-style Italian flaw.

Dishonest, Machiavellian politics and leadership, and an ill-conceived constitutional reform, cost Renzi the referendum and the popular consensus. His resignation was the inevitable consequence. But Italy’s problems remain – all of them – unattended, and no one seems able to take the reins to end the country’s political and economic stalemate.

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