The referendum highlights parties’ distances and contradictions

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The election day of Sunday 20 and Monday 21 September constitutes the next major ridge of the 18th Legislature. Not so much as an event capable of causing the collapse of the Conte Cabinet, which is about to celebrate its surprising first birthday after last summer’s government crisis and despite the pandemic attack of recent months. In fact, it may be assumed that even when the polls confirm the prediction of an overwhelming success of the center-right in the regional elections or an unlikely rejection of the referendum question, the natural reaction of the government and its ruling coalition will be to further tighten their fragile ranks – being aware of having everything to lose from snap elections or the emergence of a new power balance in Parliament.

At most, seen from Palazzo Chigi any electoral debacle of one or both its two leading coalition partners could constitute a favorable opportunity to justify a partial Cabinet reshuffle to Italians; a possibility that has been weighted for some time in light of recent months’ controversies on ways and timing of the post-Covid restart.

The vote will be important above all because it represents a striking example of the moment in which the protagonists of Italian politics find themselves, with blatant distances among allies and more or less evident internal contradictions. Much (but not all) revolves around the constitutional referendum to reduce number of lawmakers by a third. This is the fourth consultation of its kind in Italy’s republican history, after those in 2001 on the reform of Title V of the Constitution (Berlusconi II Cabinet, approved), in 2006 on the reform of Part II (Prodi II Cabinet, rejected) and in 2016 on the Renzi-Boschi reform (Renzi Cabinet, rejected).

Now, the September 20-21 referendum was born from the M5S-League ruling coalition that no longer exists and it is paradigmatic of the ideological battle carried out in recent years by the anti-establishment M5S against the politics’ caste and its wastes. While the 5-Star are therefore the undisputed standard bearers of a reform seen also as an opportunity to try to relaunch themselves after recent times’ collapse in surveys, the other main ruling party is doing everything possible to minimize the occasions for media exposure on the issue.

The center-left Democratic Party is in fact highly fragmented internally, between party bigwigs who firmly support the reform and others who have sided decisively for the No-vote and who in all likelihood will take part in the Rome rally scheduled for September 12. Also emblematic is the fact that in Parliament the PD has rejected for three times the reform when it seated in opposition, before a major U-turn once it replaced the far-right League in government. Identical divisions can be found within the opposition. Matteo Salvini’s party has always supported the reform and today remains in favor of MPs cuts, although it is somewhat embarrassed for being again on the same side of the M5S. And if Meloni’s far-right FdI pushes without worries for the reduction of lawmakers, Berlusconi’s center-right Forza Italia wades through the No-vote and the freedom of conscience to electors.

At this stage, the real issue for Italian parties is to position themselves as painlessly as possible ahead of a result that seems already obvious: the reform approval by the electoral body.