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Saving Italy From Itself

SIENA – Now that Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s credibility is weakening at home, he will need all the friends he can get to clear the hurdle of a constitutional referendum in December – and thereby avoid likely political disruption. Renzi will need the support not just of his own party, which is deeply divided over the referendum, but also of an Italian electorate that has grown disillusioned with politics in general.

The referendum has become a litmus test for Renzi and his government partly because of his ill-considered warning earlier this year that he would resign if the proposed reform of the Senate (the parliament’s upper house) were voted down. But Renzi’s bigger problem is that he is a mid-term, unelected prime minister who promised, in 2014, to bring change to a country that has heard it all before.

Two years later, far less change than expected has materialized, and Renzi has come to resemble a guarantor of political stability more than a rottamatore – a “scraper of the old,” as he had been nicknamed. Renzi has vigorously backpedaled from his conditional vow to step down; but if voters reject the Senate reform, he will become a lame duck, and political stability will most likely suffer unless he keeps his promise.

Renzi is an astute politician who understands and speaks to many voters’ gut feelings about the two main issues on their minds: the state of the economy and immigration. So he knows that his government’s survival – and his own political future – depends on their trust in his ability to address both. There is no guarantee that he will succeed.