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Italians To Vote On Referendum To Overhaul The Nation's Constitution


On December 4, Italians vote on some changes to the country's constitution. Polls suggest that opposition to that measure is high. And Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has said, if it's defeated, he's going to quit. This Democratic vote comes at a moment when many people are asking just where democracy across the West is heading. So we're going to talk about this with NPR's Sylvia Poggioli.

Hi, Sylvia.


INSKEEP: What is this referendum about?

POGGIOLI: Well, Italians are going to be asked to vote yes or no to some very technical issues that are presented in very complicated language. What the amendments would actually do is streamline the legislative process, which, in Italy, is very, very slow, and they would centralize some powers that now belong to the regions.

There's been an intense emotion over the issues in TV talk shows, but I've encountered more confusion among Italians on the street. I don't think many of them really understand the actual questions they're going to have to answer. The last poll suggests the no vote is in the lead by a few points but also that some 15 percent of Italians are still undecided.

INSKEEP: Although I think we're getting a hint as to why this would be controversial. You said it would centralize some powers that belong to Italy's regions. That sounds like the kinds of debates we have here about federal versus state control on different issues.

POGGIOLI: Yeah, well, here, many Italians say the reforms would give too much power to the central government. Now, Italy's Constitution was written right after World War II and the defeat of the fascist dictatorship. It was purposefully designed to create a weak government so as to prevent the rise of another Mussolini. But now, 70 years later, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and many Italians believe the risk of a dictatorship emerging no longer exists and that it's time to amend the constitution.

INSKEEP: OK, so big underlying issues, but why would people be so emotional if, as you say, many people can't even understand what the changes specifically are?

POGGIOLI: Because the referendum has essentially become a vote in favor or against Prime Minister Renzi. He strongly personalized it when he said at the start that he would resign if the amendments don't pass. And that really encouraged all the opposition parties to campaign against him, even though some of those parties had actually voted in favor of the amendments in parliament. But then, this is Italy. Everything's all very confusing here.

So Renzi faces what he calls a motley crew of opponents - the center-right party of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, the anti-immigrant Northern League and the populist Five Star Movement. Now, to give you a sense of how emotional the tone is, the - the leader of the Five Star Movement, the comedian Beppe Grillo, has accused Renzi and his amendments of being the serial killer of future generations.

INSKEEP: Ouch. So - so how does this vote, Sylvia, fit in with much noticed elections elsewhere - the Brexit vote in Britain, the election of Donald Trump in the United States? We could mention some votes elsewhere in the world in which people have rejected their governments. There was a peace deal in Colombia voted down, for example.

POGGIOLI: Well, you know, much of Europe and the financial world here are worried that a referendum defeat and a fall of the Renzi government could lead to a period of instability. Italy's already in pretty bad shape. Unemployment is around 12 percent. Youth joblessness is close to 40 percent. And Italy's public debt at 135 percent of GDP is one of the world's highest.

So a Renzi fall could lead to instability. The specter that's looming on the horizon is that early elections could lead to the victory of the Five Star Movement. That is a fiercely euro-skeptic party, and it wants a referendum on Italy leaving the Eurozone. But Europe is also divided over what could happen.

The Financial Times says a defeat of the referendum could lead to Europe's disintegration, while the Economist says that Renzi's resignation may not be the catastrophe many in Europe fear. This has only made Italians more confused. And as in Brexit and in the U.S. election, no one believes the polls or the media much anymore.

INSKEEP: Well, we'll listen to your reporting as that December 4 vote nears. That's NPR's Sylvia Poggioli in Rome.

Sylvia, thanks.

POGGIOLI: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.