Once young and promising, Italy's Matteo Renzi gets handed his hat

If there was ever any doubt that Italy's referendum on constitutional reform was anything other than a verdict on Matteo Renzi as prime minister, the near 70 per cent voter turnout and resounding defeat of his proposals blasted away the last scraps of uncertainty.

'I assume full responsibility for this loss. I will gather my cabinet … and tender my resignation'

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi speaks after the results of the referendum on constitutional reforms at Palazzo Chigi early Monday in Rome. Renzi called a cabinet meeting for 6:30 p.m. Rome time, after which he said he would tender his resignation. (Franco Origlia/Getty Images)

If there was ever any doubt that Italy's referendum on constitutional reform was anything other than a verdict on Matteo Renzi as prime minister, the near 70 per cent voter turnout and resounding defeat of his proposals on Sunday blasted away the last scraps of uncertainty.

The near-three-year-old coalition government with the young and once-promising Renzi came crashing down early Monday.

Results confirmed close to 60 per cent of Italians voted No in a referendum upon which Renzi, just like David Cameron, gambled his political career — and, some observers say, the future of Italy and the European Union.

In a televised address shortly after midnight — when exit polls were showing a clear defeat, but before half of the ballots had even been counted — Renzi announced he would resign.

Five Star Movement Leader Beppe Grillo smiles after voting on constitutional reforms in Genoa, Italy, Sunday. He wants immediate elections. (Luca/Zennaro/Associated Press)

"I assume full responsibility for this loss," he said. "[Monday] I will gather my cabinet, thank my colleagues for this extraordinary adventure with a cohesive and strong team, climb the hill to the presidential palace and tender my resignation."

The news was received with unbridled, gleeful vengeance by the most vocal section of the No vote camp: the Five Star protest movement headed by rabble-rousing comedian Beppe Grillo.

"Long live democracy!" Grillo tweeted. He then called for immediate elections, rather than have Italy's president, Sergio Mattarella, name an interim leader until the current mandate ends in early 2018.

Less palatable reactions came from the anti-immigration Lega Nord leader, Matteo Salvini.

"Viva Trump, viva Putin, viva la Le Pen e viva la Lega!" tweeted Salvini.

Northern League Leader Matteo Salvini, an ally of France's Marine Le Pen, was exultant at the referendum result. (Tony Gentile/Reuters)

On the face of it, Sunday's referendum was a vote on plans to strengthen the Italian parliament's lower house and to reduce the power of regional authorities. The changes would have made Renzi's other reforms easier to accomplish.

Those who played the critical role in Renzi's defeat, though, were members of his own Democratic Party. Many of the old guard — former Communists and Socialists who viewed Renzi with hostile skepticism from the start — campaigned hard to bring down the young former Florentine mayor.

Put off by what they saw as Renzi's disregard for a tradition of governing by wide political consultation among party members, they masterfully exploited Renzi's misstep of pegging his leadership to the vote.

But young people, who face an unemployment rate of more than 40 per cent and who have been leaving the country in droves, also contributed heavily to the No win.

Despite Renzi's attempt to loosen up the job market with his Jobs Act reform, Italy's economy continues to flatline, saddled by a mammoth debt of $3.3 trillion (132 per cent of the country's GDP) that now risks further sinking the economy.

Italians line up to vote Sunday in the country's referendum on constitutional change. There was an almost 70 per cent turnout, with 60 per cent voting No. (Megan Williams/CBC)

According to a survey conducted by the Italian news channel Sky TG24, 81 per cent of voters aged 18 to 34 voted against the reforms.

But for less hardline members of Renzi's party, people hoping a Yes triumph would turn the page on post-war Italian history, the No victory is a bitter pill to swallow.

"Here at last was a young and dynamic politician who was providing a sense of future and change for our country," says biologist Manuela Lopez, 61.

I was convinced this reform would finally haul us out of the swamp that Italy has sat in for decades.- Romano Delli Santi, architect

"[Renzi's defeat] is just another example of the Italian centre-left shooting itself in the foot. And what are we left with? A movement that I fear has real elements of fascism," she says, referring to the Five Stars.

Her husband, City of Rome architect Romano Delli Santi, 64, was also let down, though for different reasons.

"In Italian, we say 'Il meglio e' il nemico del bene' — 'the best is the enemy of the good.'

"The changes weren't perfect," he says of the proposals geared to bring more stability to Italy's government. "But I was convinced this reform would finally haul us out of the swamp that Italy has sat in for decades."

Matteo Renzi exits Palazzo Chigi in Rome after speaking about the results of the referendum on constitutional reforms early Monday. He was expected to resign later in the day. (Franco Origlia/Getty Images)

Delli Santi says he doubts how capable the Five Stars, which sprang up seven years ago as a mostly online movement, would be in governing the nation. As a City of Rome employee, he says he's experienced firsthand the "incompetency" of the Five Star administration that was elected this past summer.

"Maybe in 10 years they'll know how to govern, but not now. They just don't have the experience."

Observers point out that with Italy about to form its 64th government in 70 years, this kind of turmoil is hardly novel.

Still, political economist Elisabetta Addis says this shakeup comes at a time when the European Union is at its most fragile.

With Germany, France and the Netherlands all holding national elections in 2017, and concerns of rising anti-EU sentiment, the possibility of the Eurosceptic Five Stars succeeding Renzi is a real worry for believers in the EU.

"Renzi has been very critical of the austerity policy," says Addis. "But very loyal to the idea of continuing with the European project."

What's clear now, she says, is that if that project is to survive, it needs fiscal co-ordination and more flexibility with regard to spending limits.

In spite of the Brexit vote and Italy's failed referendum, she says she hopes the European project survives.


Megan Williams

Rome correspondent

Rome correspondent Megan Williams has covered everything from Italian politics and migration to the Vatican and the Venice Biennale for almost two decades. Her award-winning documentaries can be heard on Ideas, The Current and other CBC shows. Megan is a regular guest host of As It Happens and The Current.