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Matteo Renzi’s Fate Is at Stake as Italians Vote in Referendum

But it is the vote in Italy, the fourth-largest economy in Europe and a key player in the European Union, that is sending shivers through leaders on the Continent and across the globe.

After Brexit and the victory of Donald J. Trump in the United States, Italy has emerged as potentially the next domino to fall to surging populist forces, raising fears of political instability that could prompt a renewed financial crisis.

Mr. Renzi, 41, came to power in 2014 as an anti-establishment outsider who nevertheless emerged as an expert at working within the system.

For more than two years he carefully struck the balance between outsider and insider, delivering reforms and gaining leverage in Europe while lambasting “old fogies” and European bureaucrats.

Mr. Renzi took on a special aura as a bulwark against the anti-immigrant, right-wing and radical forces in Europe when he beat back a continentwide swell of populism in the 2014 elections for the European Parliament. Italy, long mocked as the chaotic home of 63 governments in 70 years, emerged as a safe port of stability and an unexpectedly important voice on the Continent.

“Having given stability to the country, independently of me, is fundamental to bring Italy into the European discussion,” Mr. Renzi explained in an interview over the summer. He added that while he felt European, “I could never be part of its establishment.”

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But in recent months, the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, which advocates a referendum to determine whether Italy should give up the euro and wants to break the system altogether, has gained momentum.

The vote is “a test of strength of the anti-Europe and anti-establishment forces in Italy,” said Stefano Stefanini, a diplomatic adviser to the former Italian president Giorgio Napolitano.

He said that Mr. Renzi’s departure could ultimately embolden parties feeding on economic frustration, loss of national identity, anger at Brussels and a desire to break with the post-World War II belief that Italy’s economic and national security interests were better served within an alliance of liberal democracies.

The vote showed that Italy “is reverting to a willingness to go it alone as a nation-state,” Mr. Stefanini said.

Ever since Mr. Renzi tied his tenure to the result, the referendum has become the central issue in Italy, dominating news coverage and political conversation. Mr. Renzi’s vow to step down if he loses brought all of his many political enemies out of the woodwork.

If approved, Mr. Renzi’s reform would change 47 of the 68-year-old Constitution’s 139 articles. When the Constitution was written in the wake of Mussolini’s fascist regime, its drafters paid special attention to preventing another strongman by setting up a perfect bicameral system, in which both houses had to approve identical drafts of bills before the proposals became law.

Mr. Renzi has argued that the constitutional reform — to streamline government, shrink and weaken the Senate and transfer powers away from the regions to the executive branch — is necessary to speed up the pace of lawmaking and better compete with his European allies.

Critics complained that Mr. Renzi’s changes invested too much power in the prime minister, but many opponents seemed most animated by the prospect of toppling Mr. Renzi.

The populist Five Star Party seemed poised to benefit most of all.

“We have the Italian people behind us,” Luigi Di Maio, the 30-year-old deputy leader of Italy’s lower house of Parliament, and a member of the Five Star Movement who is often considered a rival to Mr. Renzi, said in an interview this month. “And he is losing.”

Some world leaders, seeing in Mr. Renzi a critical defense against populism’s rising tide, urged him to stay. President Obama, speaking at the White House during Mr. Renzi’s visit in October, said he hoped Mr. Renzi would “hang around for a while no matter what.”

The incoming Trump administration was less eager to see him remain. Members of Mr. Trump’s inner circle have closely watched, and rooted for, the surging populism in Europe.

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In the interview this summer, Mr. Renzi compared Beppe Grillo, the leader of the Five Star Movement, to Mr. Trump, and said he believed fear was driving the populist movements in America, Italy and Europe.

“Populism is always the offspring of fear, and in Italy the answer to fear is the courage to not be defensive, to not be like all the others,” he said.

The final polls looked bleak for Mr. Renzi, though he campaigned vigorously over the final week to convince a broad slice of undecided voters to stick with him. But Mr. Renzi’s enemies, and there are many, campaigned just as tirelessly and a steady stream of fake news targeting Mr. Renzi flooded the Facebook accounts of many Italians.

On Sunday morning, Bruni Bova, 77, and his wife, Anna Roncaglia, 79, strolled next to the august palace that is home to the Italian Senate after voting in the referendum. In a country that is sharply divided on the referendum, so was the couple.

“As a little boy I saw them making this Constitution. But just like clothes, a constitution that is 68 years old is not going to fit a country that has grown up,” Mr. Bova said.

He said he had been undecided until that morning but opted to support the government, which he considered a moderating force.

“I decided it was better to support the government, because through all of his talking and spinning and operating, Renzi has proven capable of doing something,” Mr. Bova said. “I don’t see the Five Star Movement as capable of governing. They are simply a protest vote.”

His wife said she didn’t see the need for such a dramatic change. “I wanted to keep things simple,” Ms. Roncaglia said.

After casting his ballot against the reform on Sunday morning, Dario Cecchi, 37, said his vote had less to do with Mr. Renzi than the substance of the reform itself. He said that it was too dramatic a change just to save money on the salaries of senators. “We’re not that poor yet,” he said.

Mr. Cecchi added that he was upset that Mr. Renzi had tied his political fate to the referendum, because he didn’t want the prime minister to step down, as he had “gotten Italy’s motor running again.”

He said he understood that Mr. Renzi had re-established Italy as a force within Europe and that a yes vote would only increase his country’s power inside the bureaucracy of the European Union. But, he said, the reform “shouldn’t just be good for Europe, it should be good for Italy.”

Source: NYT > World

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