Referendums are, to put it kindly, instruments of political expedience. They condense complex and multi-faceted economic and social issues into Yes or No questions. A binary so crude that it would not be out of place in a tyrant’s war chest.
Plebiscite campaigns are run on advertising muscle, celebrity endorsements, and appeals to prejudice. The latter of which most horrifyingly manifested itself when Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered by a white supremacist during the Brexit campaign.
The last few years especially have proven the absurdity of the exercise in the West, most recently with the Italian constitutional referendum.
This is by no means a slight towards direct democracy, nor a criticism of the voters supposedly easily swayed by political theatre. Rather, it is the natural corollary of so-called liberal democracies that wash their hands of voters the day after the end of election season.
There can be no popular democratic deliberation in a system that disenfranchises voters.
It is not reasonable to expect constituents, who have been ignored by the political class, to be fully engaged in a mid-term referendum where the issues are convoluted and emotionally charged and the options so few.
As Beppe Grillo, the leader of Italy’s populist Five Star Movement (MS5), told a crowd of “No” supporters during the referendum campaign: “Vote with your guts, not with your brain.”
Moral panic against the recent surge of far-right populism in the United States and in Europe is not without reason. History does not afford us the luxury to ignore fascist and xenophobic movements.
But the same old rhetoric and solutions offered as panacea by centrist and moderate voices do show an uncanny lack of awareness.
The failed constitutional reforms proposed by Matteo Renzi are a ground zero demonstration of this tried and tested but gone-are-the-days approach.
The international community and the liberal press declared a kind of Pyrrhic victory on the morning after December 4. The good news was that the Greens-backed candidate Van der Bellen had won over his far-right anti-immigration opponent in the Austrian presidential election.
The more concerning development, however, were the exit polls in Italy that showed a clear repudiation (in the final results, almost 60% voted “no”) of the constitutional agenda set forth by Renzi. Almost instantly the markets went into panic, and the Euro dropped to a 21-month low against the dollar, although, more importantly, it has bounced back since.
The headlines were swift and blunt: “The Death Of The Euro,” “Italy’s Populists Claim Victory in Referendum, But Chaos Looms,” among others.
Referendums fuel convenience and this one was almost hijacked by voices accustomed to business-as-usual rehearsals of the dangers of populism and the need for financial stability
The content of the referendum even prior to the vote had been obfuscated by the twin narratives of the failure of the European project and rise of ultra-nationalist parties continent-wide.
Lega Nord, a party with roots in secessionism, and the Five Star Movement were only happy to play along.
Renzi had done himself no favours by signing onto unpopular legislation such the Jobs Act that made it easier for employers to fire workers and offered corporations tax breaks in an attempt to reverse widespread unemployment.
The measures were greeted with disgust by workers, and even some left-wing members within Renzi’s Democratic Party opposed the law.
This culminated in massive street protests led by Italy’s largest trade union, the CGIL.
This anger amongst the Italian population over widespread unemployment reared its head during the referendum.
As Bloomberg news reported, the no-vote won heavily in regions, especially in the south, with rampant unemployment.
Renzi, by promising to resign if he lost, had essentially turned the vote into a popularity contest, and his anti-labour and austerity policies, mandated by the EU, almost assured defeat.
This meant that opposition was not only restricted to the opportunistic right, but rather large parts of the Italian left, including communist remnants in the Democratic Party who voted no.
As for the constitutional reforms that had almost taken a backseat to rhetoric and talking points, a closer look proves that they were an attempt by Renzi to strengthen the executive power of the head of government at the expense of the legislature to streamline the passing of unpopular and contentious laws.
The reforms, had they passed, would’ve dismantled Italy’s system of “perfect bicameralism” that enshrined equal responsibilities to both houses of parliament.
The proposals included reducing the number of senators and the power they had while also curtailing the influence of regional governments.
A majority bonus system that would have given extra seats to a party if they were short of a ruling majority was also to be introduced.
Renzi said that the measures were to reduce the cost of public institutions and ensure more efficient governance.
Constitutional experts argued that the Italian Constitution of 1948 had enshrined a system of checks and balances, and was an anti-fascist compromise between Christian Democrats, Communists, and Socialists.
It was drafted to prevent the same conditions that led to the rise of Mussolini.
The new reforms would have made the executive branch stronger than ever and might have proven disastrous if populist movements such as the MS5, which is hovering near the top of polls for the next general election, had taken power.
Referendums fuel convenience and this one was almost hijacked by voices accustomed to business-as-usual rehearsals of the dangers of populism and the need for financial stability.
The details, though, as almost always, are more complex and any argument about the lesser-evil could have proved catastrophic in the long term.
The Italian population overwhelmingly voted “no” for a variety of reasons, some of which had more to do with Renzi than the constitution, but in the end the results were a victory for those who feared more authoritarian powers for current and future governments.
The recapitalisation of Italy’s banks and removing bureaucratic clutter can still be pursued in a country that is weighed down by billions in bad loans.
Constitutional reforms without consensus from across the political spectrum is no way to do it, however. It has often been reported that Italy has had 63 governments in 70 years. That much is undeniable.
But as Italian voters demonstrated in their numbers, any attempt to unilaterally push through reforms that prioritise efficiency over democratic representation and debate is doomed to fail.
Mahmood Sadaat Ruhul is a freelance contributor.