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The Stakes of Italy’s Referendum

MILAN – In the last 68 years, Italy has held 17 general elections and a few referenda. But only three times has an Italian vote claimed center stage internationally: in 1948, when the choice was between the West and communism; in 1976, when voters faced a similar choice, between the Christian Democrats and Enrico Berlinguer’s “Eurocommunism”; and now, with the upcoming referendum on constitutional reforms.

The implications of the upcoming vote are enormous. Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has staked his political future on the vote, pledging to step down (though not immediately) if the reforms are rejected. Such an outcome that would irreparably weaken the center-left government coalition as well: Renzi’s Democratic Party (PD) is already roiled by infighting over the reforms. In fact, the PD may not be able to avoid a split even if the vote goes the prime minister’s way.

A defeat for Renzi will be read as a victory for Italy’s two major populist parties: the Lega Nord and the larger Five Star Movement, led by the comedian Beppe Grillo. The two parties are not allied, but both are nurtured by anti-establishment sentiment and favor “national solutions” to Italy’s problems – beginning with a return to the Italian lira.

If Renzi is defeated, Lega Nord and the Five Star Movement could join forces to support a new government and hold a new referendum – this time on the euro. If Italy – one of the world’s largest public debtors – decided to go it alone, the entire European project could be dealt a mortal blow. In the age of Donald Trump and Brexit, that outcome is far from unthinkable.