Commentary. Ever since the 1970s, driven by cultural and social battles, on the wave of lush associationism and exuberant political participation, referendums have been the keystones for new seasons of progress. Today, fewer and fewer participate.

Victorious Italian candidates have little to celebrate

Salvini in the center-right and Conte in the center-left came out of the latest elections rather worse for wear. The Lega leader took the biggest blows (a double drubbing, in both the referendum and the municipal elections), while Conte fared better, at least by comparison, because the M5S has always done poorly in administrative elections. The Five Stars’ results were very low across the board, making them a vulnerable target for those – like Renzi, Calenda and part of the PD – who are jockeying to take their place in the centrist-driven “broad field” portion of the spectrum (against the minimum wage, against the citizenship income, and so on).

But while the local government elections are only a limited test in any case, the failure of the referendum – expected, true, but no less striking – instead looks like something of a political dirge for this instrument of direct democracy. Who will dare to risk calling for another one next time?

We’ll leave aside the incomprehensible technicalities of the questions, which contributed to this outcome to a great extent. But the deathblow was dealt, above all, by the instrumentalization of the precious institution of the direct vote, which the center-right in government was now attempting to use as a Trojan horse against one of the powers of the state, the judiciary.

We can even set aside the fact that it was first and foremost the declining Salvini (with Berlusconi and Renzi as fellow losers) who paid the price for making foolish use of it; more important is the damage done to all of us citizens, who, in the political history of the Italian Republic, have generally put it to good use.

Ever since the 1970s, driven by cultural and social battles, on the wave of lush associationism and exuberant political participation, referendums have been the keystones for new seasons of progress. They featured in a formidable democratic push toward the modernization of customs (divorce), advancement of rights (abortion), and visionary power arrangements (the commons).

In the face of a reactionary ruling class, not only on the conservative right but also on the left (at the time of the “divorce,” in the referendum on public water, the PCI was pushing for No while the PD was for Yes), people’s hearts and minds were delivering memorable messages to their elected officials (59.3 percent No on the abolition of divorce, 96 percent Yes on public water). Unfortunately, afterwards, Parliament would often notoriously defang or simply overturn the citizens’ choices.

It is certainly the case that until 2011, voter turnout was well above the 50 percent required for a valid quorum for a referendum, and the deep and progressive disaffection with elections should be taken into account as we discuss whether and how to change the validity threshold. But there is no doubt that popular participation was driven from below, from the movements (feminists, environmentalists, etc.) which were more powerful than the parties – and not vice versa, as on Sunday, when 50 million voters were called to approve a judicial reform package handed down from the ivory tower at Via Bellerio, promoted by the center-right regions without much attention paid to the collection of signatures. On Monday, the president of the Criminal Law Chambers sensibly asked the question of who had decided the questions and who had been part of that conversation – thus opening up a controversy in both the legal and radical worlds.

Moreover, despite the fact that only one in five voters filled in the ballot for the five concurrent referendums (supposedly against the root causes of injustice in Italy, but rather against the magistrates), the No votes reached very significant percentages, in clear opposition to the propaganda of the Salvinian-Berlusconi right: in some cases, the No votes even outnumbered the Yes votes, as in the deep North, in Bolzano, or in the far South, in Palermo.

While the drop to just 20% turnout for the referendum is frightening, the almost 6% drop in turnout for the municipal elections is itself hardly reassuring: from 60.12% in the previous local elections, turnout went down to 54.72% in the June 12 ballot.

With the loss of 6% of turnout per election (while it could certainly be even worse), it seems surreal to think there’s anything to celebrate.

Much like the victorious mayors who are thanking the people for choosing them, even though they were reappointed after suffering heavy losses in terms of the absolute number of votes. A telling example is that of the Mayor of Genoa, who was celebrating his re-election despite the fact that turnout in the city had dropped from 49% five years ago (already one of the lowest turnouts on record) to 44% on Sunday.

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