The 2016 Italian Referendum

The 2016 Italian Constitutional was held on December 4th, 2016, on the recommendation of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. With his pledge to resign should the “Yes” side lose, the referendum saw both the end of the Renzi Administration and the success of the “No” vote. The final tallies showed Italians rejected the proposed amendments 59% to 41%, with more than 30,000,000 Italian casting a vote.


A signature of Italian politics, the symmetrical bicameral system, containing the Senate and the House of Deputies, is a remnant of the Post-World War Two political environment. Fearing a Mussolini-type character once again establishing fascist rule over Italy, it was decided to place as little power as possible in the Prime Minister and their party, and emphasizing the need for broad consensus. As such, Italian governments are quite unstable, with 63 governments being formed in the last 70 years.

Renzi, seeking to introduce a package of economic reforms, as well as to streamline the political process, first proposed the referendum in 2016, after more than ten years of proposed reforms, including a failed attempt in the 2006 referendum.

In the package, Renzi proposed reducing the number of Senators from 315 to just 100, composed of mayors and regional leaders, with five being appointed by the Italian President. As well, the newly reorganized Senate would not be allowed to pass motions of no confidence, it would be reduced to a consultative role, only being allowed to propose amendments.

Opposition parties denounced the referendum as a power play, saying it would put too much power in the Prime Minister, as well as it being “too confusing” and “poorly worded.”

The Results

Although early campaigning saw Renzi’s “Yes” side leading in the polls, the participation of all other major parties on the “No” side started a reversal in the trend. Before the government-ordered blackout on polling, on November 18th, the “No” side held a clear lead, and stayed that way to the exit polls, which showed a larger than anticipated lead for the rejection.

Prime Minister Renzi and his wife Agnese cast their vote in Florence

By the closing of polls at 23:00 local time, it was reported that voters would reject Renzi’s amendments 60% to 40%, with the lead persisting as the night progressed.

Matteo Renzi said he would address the country at 00:00 local time regardless of the result, tweeting shortly before the address to thank his supporters.

In his address, Renzi acknowledged the defeat as his responsibility, and offered his immediate resignation as Prime Minister, something he had promised during the campaign and what many said partially caused the loss.

He also announced he would not be continuing in politics, saying, “my experience of government ends here.”

Prime Minister Renzi offers his resignation

Renzi was convinced by President Sergio Matarella to stay on in the position of Prime Minister until a replacement could be found, and on December 12th, 2016, Foreign Affairs Minister Paolo Gentiloni was sworn in as the 57th Prime Minister of Italy.

Although there had been a call for elections to be held by opposition parties, the ruling coalition declined, likely due to their falling popularity in recent polls, with the populist euro-skeptic Five Star Movement a likely contender to form the next government.

Founded by comedian Beppe Grillo, the Five Star Movement seeks to fix the corruption that has plagued Italian politics in recent years, and offers an anti-immigration, anti-European platform. Further causing concern among establishment politicians is worry over a possible referendum on leaving the European Union should Grillo be elected Prime Minister.


Much attention was placed on the results of the referendum around the world, as populist movements surged in popularity first in the UK with the Brexit results, then in the United States with the election of outsider Donald Trump. On the same day as the referendum, however, the Austrian presidential election was held, with the environmentalist Green Party candidate prevailing.

Upon the announcement of Renzi’s defeat and resignation, French far-right party leader Marine Le Pen, a front-runner in the 2017 French elections, offered her congratulations, tweeting, “bravo to our friend Matteo Salvinimi [an Italian far-right politician] for this victory of the “No” side! The Italians have disavowed the European Union and Renzi. We must listen to this thirst of liberty and protection of Nations!”

Other reactions poured in as the night passed, with many wondering what this result will mean with several elections, in Germany, France, and the Netherlands on the way in 2017, with similar issues at stake, and the popularity of the European Union waning.


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