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Aug 8, 2016 | 18:42 GMT

3 mins read

A Referendum on the Italian Government's Future

A Referendum on the Italian Government's Future
(GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images)

Italy's highest court has approved Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's request to hold a referendum on his administration's proposed constitutional reform — a measure on which the prime minister has staked his political future. On Aug. 8, the Supreme Court of Cassation gave the Italian government its blessing to hold the vote and granted Rome 60 days to choose a date for it. In theory, the referendum could take place on any Sunday between Oct. 2 and Dec. 11. Some Italian media outlets have suggested, however, that it will be held on Nov. 27, which would give the government enough time to campaign for the public's support while simultaneously getting a budget passed.

And for Italian President Sergio Mattarella, solidifying a budget before the constitutional referendum is paramount. Renzi has tied the continued rule of his government to the vote's success. Should the Italian people reject his proposed reforms, the administration in Rome could easily fall before the year is out. Mattarella hopes to ensure that if this happens, the country will have a 2017 budget in place before Renzi's administration is ousted and new elections are held.

Renzi would also prefer to hold the referendum later in the year so that he will have more time to sway popular opinion in his favor. When he originally proposed the reform, which would amend the Italian Constitution to reduce the powers of the Senate, Renzi vowed to resign if Italian voters refused to back it. And at the time, the move made sense: Renzi and his Democratic Party were well liked, and promising to link his name to reforms that were already supported by a majority of Italians was a low-risk way of boosting his popularity even further.

But over the past two years the tables have turned. Public approval of Italy's opposition parties, including the Five Star Movement and the Northern League, has risen as the ruling party's ratings have dropped. Moreover, the opposition has convinced Italians that by voting against the constitutional referendum, they could indirectly boot Renzi from office. Opinion polls now indicate that a majority of citizens might do just that, rebuffing the prime minister's reform in an effort to express their dissatisfaction with his administration.

Aware of the corner he has backed himself into, Renzi has tried to reverse his position. On Aug. 2, he declared in an interview that Italians should vote on the merits of the reform itself, not on the performance of his government. But detaching his administration's future from the outcome of the referendum will take time, which will give Renzi all the more reason to select a date for the vote as close to the end of the year as he can.

In the meantime, it is also possible that the popularity of the Five Star Movement will decline, a scenario that has no doubt influenced Renzi's calculations. Five Star Movement candidate Virginia Raggi was recently elected the mayor of Rome, a highly visible position in Italian politics. If Raggi struggles to manage the country's capital well, it could reveal her party's weakness in governing, potentially eating into its support base in time to swing the referendum in Renzi's favor.

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