Renzi’s Unpopularity in Italy and Revolt from Within his Own Party Drove the Referendum Defeat

Story Transcript

SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. Italy’s Foreign Minister, Paolo Gentiloni, is expected to become Prime Minister of Italy. The move comes in the wake of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi resigning last week when he lost a referendum to reform the country’s Constitution. The referendum was defeated by 59.1% and its defeat is generally considered to represent a boost to the country’s eurosceptics. They resist EU policies and seek greater independence from the EU and analysts believe that the new Prime Minister, Paolo Gentiloni, will strengthen the position of both the left- and the right-wing eurosceptic parties in Italy since he comes from the same centre-left pro-EU party as the departing Matteo Renzi whose policies were rejected in the referendum.

Now, joining me to talk about all of this is Loretta Napoleoni, author of Merchants of Men: How Jihadists and ISIS Turned Kidnapping and Refugee Trafficking into a Multi-Billion Dollar Business. Loretta, thank you so much for joining us.

LORETTA NAPOLEONI: Thank you for inviting me.

SHARMINI PERIES: Loretta, sitting on this side of the pond, we are not exactly completely aware of the referendum and what it was calling for that failed, and forced Matteo Renzi to resign. Tell us more about what was in the referendum and why it was so misunderstood, I guess, here and in Italy.

LORETTA NAPOLEONI: The referendum was to reduce the number of senators to 100. Basically, the idea was to change the Constitution so that the Upper House would not block any more key decisions which are made by the Lower House. There also would give a much more power to the party that is in power, the party of the Prime Minister. The referendum was presented as a way forward to ease a situation which has been typical of Italy for a very long time, which is very difficult to come out with new legislation because there are too many parties, there are too many currents inside the parties, so it’s always very difficult to reach an agreement.

The idea was we’ll reduce the power of the Upper House and with the power of the Lower House, we will be able to pass legislation much more quickly — so that’s more or less what it was.

SHARMINI PERIES: Why did Matteo Renzi — now to be former Prime Minister since he resigned — why did he hedge so much of his political power on this referendum by offering to resign if it was not passed?

LORETTA NAPOLEONI: Well, it is a bit the same thing that Cameron did. Because Matteo Renzi has not been elected, the idea was, “I will present this referendum as a sort of referendum on myself. I’m so popular,” and that was where he made a mistake. He thought that being so popular was going to give weight to the referendum, so people would vote, even if they did not agree with the referendum, even if they did not understand the referendum, because that’s the key issue — most people did not understand what they were voting for — they would vote “yes” because Matteo Renzi had told them to vote yes. Clearly, he was wrong. And he did say that. Actually, in the speech he gave at 12 o’clock on the day of the referendum when finally we knew he had lost it, he said, “I did not know that I was so unpopular.” So, it was a miscalculation.

SHARMINI PERIES: Now, it is clear that people on the left as well as people on the right opposed this referendum, obviously for very different reasons. Tell us why.

LORETTA NAPOLEONI: Well, the real opposition, the key, I would say, opposition came from his own party. Inside his own party, a group of people who have been very important, these are the old-timers, we can call them — former members of the Communist Party, who had formed this party initially — had been very quiet in the transition from the previous Secretary of the party to Matteo Renzi. So people thought that perhaps these old-timers were actually backing Renzi, which I think was true up to a certain point — up to the reform. Because, you see, this is a reform which will change completely the political structure of Italy. They’ll be okay if a party like the party of Matteo Renzi is in power, which is the party of the Establishment. But what would happen if the party in power is the populist Movimento Cinque Stelle? That party will have total power. Nobody could block it, so the Upper House could not block it, and this is why his own party thought this is not a good move at all.

SHARMINI PERIES: And tell us about the current Foreign Minister who’s going to be sworn in as the Prime Minister, what the process is, and tell us a little bit about him.

LORETTA NAPOLEONI: The process is actually quite simple. The Prime Minister resigns and then he presents his resignation to the President of the Republic. The President of the Republic decides if he accepts it or not the resignation. Now, in the case of Renzi, the initial decision was not to accept his resignation, so everybody thought that there was going to be another Renzi government, with reshuffling of the Ministers. But, because of the opposition inside his own party of the old-timers, Renzi could not be the new Prime Minister again.

So, they negotiated among each other, and they decided to present Gentiloni. Gentiloni is the former Foreign Minister of Renzi. He comes from a very important political family. His great-grandfather was in politics at the beginning of the last century and he carried on important reforms. He has been in politics since he was quite young. He was not really a key figure until very, very recently. He was very close to the Christian Democrats, so he’s not coming from the left. I would say he’s coming from the centre-left, as Renzi was coming from the centre-left, not from the left.

He’s a good transition individual because he’s not very public. He’s not very known. Lots of people don’t even know who he is, because the Foreign Minister is not such a big figure in a country like Italy. He’s also, I think, the kind of individual that being not so linked to the party, not so much identified with the party, if he fails — and of course, he will fail because this is not an elected government, when–

SHARMINI PERIES: When are the next elections?

LORETTA NAPOLEONI: The election should be in 2018. But the opposition, of course, wants to go to the election as soon as possible. And we know — we know — that the party of Renzi and Gentiloni will take less votes. So the Prime Minister will, for sure, lose. And this is, again, a good idea to have an individual that’s not so key to the party, but he can do the job.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Loretta, I thank you so much for joining us today.

LORETTA NAPOLEONI: Thank you.

SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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