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How Mr Renzi lost the Italian Constitutional Referendum, unifying his opponents on the “No” side


On the 4th December, Renzi lost the Constitutional Referendum and officially announced he would resign. The vote result is in line with the latest poll, that were predicting a No victory, while the margin of difference revealed to be larger than expected.

However, the situation was opposite at the time when this referendum was announced, in early 2016. We recognise how much complexity is involved in such an important vote; participation was at record high, above 65%, totalling more than 33 million voters. It can be difficult to find all the drivers of the “No” victory, since each one’s vote might be driven by a different reason. In our analysis, we identify two strategic errors, in Mr Renzi’s “Yes” campaign, that we believe can represent some possible root causes of the defeat. Our approach is not political, but rather analyses strategically communication and propaganda tactics that characterized PM’s campaign. We try to investigate those choices that lead to such a huge reversal in the opinion polls and in the electorate consensus. To address our objective, we found a famous historical antecedent, which we believe fits well to explain Mr Renzi’s failure. Divide and rule – “Divida et Impera” – is a famous expression of the Roman commander Julius Caesar, and since he divided Rome and “all Gaul” itself, no one ever contradicted him. “Divide and conquer” is still key to warring strategies today, but its application has moved from the battlefields to politics itself. Matteo Renzi just forgot the lesson of his ancestors, by not dividing his opponents he was digging his own grave.

We identify, in Mr Renzi’s approach, two main strategic errors: First, he attached his political future to the vote by promising he would resign in case of a NO victory. Second, when the polls turned against him, on the raise of populism, fuelled by the Brexit vote first, and Trump election then, he looked for consensus in the powerful lobbies, within and beyond national borders. Amongst the others, Obama, Merkel and the Big Banks, all with a very unpopular appeal in Italy, especially amongst the middle-working class. As a last effort to make a victory, he menaced the electorate with the negative effects of a “No” vote. Associating, to the “No” vote scenario, the flight-away of foreign investments as well as catastrophic consequences on the Italian banking system, already threatened by hundreds of millions in non-performing loans.

Julius Caesar, the successful roman commander of the 1st century AD was able to quell rebellions in the empire and put under control the numerous barbarian tribes of the north by applying a simple principle: “divide et impera”. Meaning divide your enemies, make them fight against each other, and beat them individually each at a time they make a rebellion. We chose to reassume the whole campaign in the missed principle of “Divide and rule” to push the article towards a strategy perspective and move it away from any political implication. Moreover, the historical tone of the sentence, fits well Renzi, who has always enjoyed to present himself as a man of a great culture. Indeed, when he visited president Barak Obama, on October 18th, he gave a speech about freedom of self-expression and inter-cultural integration. In this occasion, he cited entire paragraphs of Dante’s “Divina Commedia” in support of his arguments. But this time, setting the strategy for his referendum campaign, representing one of the most important challenges of his political career, ignored the very simple lesson of Julius Caesar: “Divide and rule”. He did exactly the opposite: unifying his enemies against him.

When the Constitutional Referendum was first announced, in early 2016, the polls gave the probabilities of a Yes victory above 75%. However, with the approaching of the voting time, the odds for a Yes victory have deteriorated. In summer, the situation reversed and the No victory was leading the polls, with few points of advantage, getting closer to the fatal date the gad widen day by day. At the vote the NO prevailed with obtaining 59.11% of the votes against a 40,89% on the yes side. An impressive 20 points difference. How was it possible for the PM Matteo Renzi to lose the most critical referendum of his political career, even starting with a huge advantage over his opponents? The fact is Renzi lost against his fragmented and divided opponents because succeeded in something nobody has ever done before: unify those opposition leaders, that have always fought against each other. I am talking about Matteo Salvini, Silvio Berlusconi and the comedian Beppe Grillo. 

Mr Renzi was offering them the biggest prize they have ever desired: his resignations in the case of reform rejection.

The first strategic mistake was definitely attaching his personal future to the vote. Win a referendum requires more votes than a political election; having only two possible outcomes the absolute majority of votes is required to prevail. Considering his position of standalone, with the pro-reform campaign mainly backed by the PD, the Prime minister practically asked to 51% of voters to support him, and this ambitious move proved to be lethal. To get an idea of how many voters support his party, he should have looked at the European elections in 2014, when Renzi’s PD obtained 40.81% of votes, way more than any other political force got at the time. On this historic evidence he should have considered to ally with a party accounting for at least 10% of votes at the 2014 elections. If he thought that now, alone, he could have gained 10 more points over his opponents, seems a very unrealistic forecast, and it actually proved to be. The result of the referendum supports my argument. The “Yes”, backed by Renzi, obtained 40.89% of the votes, a very close number to the European elections two years ago, while the No, representing all the other parties together obtained the 59.11%. On 4th December results would have been enough for Renzi to win the political elections, but not enough this Referendum. Probably, mathematics is not Mr Renzi’s favourite subject, as he ignored a very easy calculation. From the 2014 elections, he should have also considered the rise of the 5 Stars Movement, who just took control of Rome and Turin in June’s municipal elections. In line with a mounting populism all over the world. To increase his winning odds, he could have taken on board other political leaders, in exchange for a share of power in the government. Asking support either within his party, to D’Alema or Bersani and at the opposition, to Berlusconi, Salvini or Grillo. However, it was unlikely that any of them would have accepted a compromise with Renzi, obtaining a minority stake and limited decisional power in the government. And Renzi’s resignation promise made the prize even higher for the NO vote supporters. Inside the PD they saw an opportunity to get the leadership of the party; while externally they saw the chance to win the next elections. With his overconfident approach he put them all in a win-win situation. He offered them “Rome”, without even requiring their effort to propose a political plan in exchange for it. Criticising

any word of Renzi was enough to support the reform rejection, get rid of him and set a new party leader internally or go for anticipated elections. Seeing a one in a lifetime opportunity to eliminate a very strong prime minister, supported in Italy and estimated in Europe, opposition parties put aside all the frictions and fundamental divergence, between their political views, and unified. This to ensure the biggest obstacle, Renzi, would have resigned. What to do next was not their problem for now. Around which alternative proposal could Salvini, Berlusconi and Grillo find a common agreement, to oppose Renzi’s one? The answer is probably none, considering the radical ideological differences between those leaders. Moreover, Grillo’s Five Stars Movement, the second party in Italy, always reiterated their refusal for any government coalition with traditional parties. Renzi would have probably won easily the Referendum, if he didn’t attach his political future to it sticking to the constitutional topics, on which the question actually was about. The PM just provided his opponents with the only possible common goal: get rid of Renzi’s incumbent figure, destabilize the PD majority and get a chance to reach the power. Apparently, the people didn’t think, at the vote, about the ungovernability of the country, after Renzi’s resignations.

The second fatal mistake to investigate in Renzi’s campaign, was the move to ask for consensus outside the State borders. He involved, on a merely internal constitutional matter, the so called “Poteri Forti” or powerful lobbies. They are now very unpopular, on the wave of a populism movement across Europe and the world, that so far caused both Brexit and Trump. Ignoring what was happening abroad he asked and obtained public support of foreign leaders, such as Obama and Merkel, representing an ideal of global power and control, quite unpopular in Italy. Those leaders embody an idea of globalization seen as responsible for the crisis of the small and medium enterprises, accounting for most of the Italian economic tissue. The second foreign allies were G-SIBs (global systematic banks), such as JP Morgan and powerful foreign investors that publicly took side in favour of the YES, warning for a capital outflows in case of a NO victory. This move just turned against Renzi. “La 7”, an Italian television broadcaster, freeriding the momentum of banks’ unpopularity, published a video where JP Morgan was depicted as puppeteer or Renzi and according to the them the constitutional reform was written under their dictate; to make Italy a more attractive place for investments. Third, he took on his side the powerful lobbies within national borders, and the banks were in the first raw. For example, Unicredit declared, on its website, to be support the reform, warning investors on the negative implications for the banking system following a Renzi’s defeat. In the last years, Italian banks lost a lot of credibility, putting at risks the savings of many Italians account holders. The lobbies’ interests are shown, by populist parties, as in conflict with those of the middle to lower working class, accounting for about 70% of Italian population. Their consensus can be very significant to make a win. Brexit fuelled by Trump’s victory, on the rise of populism were freerode by political opponents, in particular Mr Salvini that supported Trump, since the beginning of his campaign. Renzi should have quickly reconsidered whether his strategy, based on lobby alliances, was still appealing the electorate. But he didn’t. Further weakening his position publicly declaring, in the first week on November, his preference for Clinton. “I hope the president will be a woman” he answered at the question about the USA presidential election. Supporting Hilary Clinton, after the scandals that the Trump entourage has attached to her, was a very risky move. He should have better avoided it, one month before a critical referendum vote.

In conclusion Renzi lost the referendum and the amendments made to the Italian constitution were rejected, just keeping it as it was first written in 1946. With this article we tried to deeply investigate two of the many possible reasons why the initial odds have been reversed, and the NO hugely prevailed over the YES in the final vote, with a lead of about 20 points. We gave an overview of the Italian political scenario according to the last elections available, those of 2014. We also argued how Renzi dug his own grave attaching to the vote his political future. We explained the dynamics of his second strategic error. We finally identified, as a root cause of the Yes defeat, the involvement of foreign leaders, banks and powerful lobbies in the referendum campaign.


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