December 01, 2016
Will Italian expats swing the referendum result?
As ever we treat referendums as utterly and fundamentally unpredictable - and we are still holding to that line even at a time when a No victory now appears widely discounted based on the pre-elections polls, which ended some time ago. As La Repubblica reminds us today, one possibly decisive factor is the position of Italians living abroad, who were not sampled in any poll and who are believed to be overwhelmingly in favour of Yes.
It appears that Matteo Renzi himself seems to have given up hope that he could win the referendum among resident Italians, but he is holding on to the belief that he has a chance of snatching a narrow victory nevertheless if Italian expats turn out in strong numbers. He said if the Yes votes captures a two-thirds majority among expats, it might be enough to swing the result in favour of a Yes vote. La Repubblica notes that in the 2013 general elections there were 3m registered expat voters (out of a total of 46.9m). Of those, 1.1m actually voted. Renzi said that maybe this time the turnout could increase to 1.5m. If two thirds of those vote Yes, i.e. 1m, he might have the critical number. Based on the participation rate of the European elections, with 28m voters, or 58%, a total of 1m yes voters would translate into 3%, the paper calculates (which is incorrect: if 1m expats vote yes, and 0.5m expats vote no, the net impact is 0.5m, which is 1.8% of the total voters in 2014.)
Let us recap the math: There need to be three conditions in place for the expat vote to swing the results:
- the vote among resident Italians would have to be narrow;
- a high turnout among foreigners;
- and a large majority of those in favour of Yes among foreigners.
Condition number three seems realistic. The first two are highly uncertain. Expats tend to vote differently than residents, but they are not uniform either. A two-thirds majority is very large, among any subgroup.
Another issue to beware of are legal consequences. The No campaign argues that the safeguard mechanisms for secret ballots are not as strict for the expat vote as they are domestically. If the expats were to swing the vote in favour of a yes, expect a legal challenge.
One other development yesterday has been Romano Prodi's public declaration in favour of a Yes vote. He has held back because he had reservations about the reform, and still has. It was a reluctant decision, based in part on his assessment of the consequences of a No vote. Prodi quoted his mother that it was better to suck a bone than a stick. But there is no meat in the reforms.
Prodi's unenthusiastic endorsement points to the real problem of the Yes vote. It is very hard to get enthusiastic about a huge constitutional reform with the sole purpose of cementing the power of the existing establishment parties and to discriminate against newcomers. It does not solve Italy's political and economic problems, for sure. A well-designed political reform would have involved shifts in the power balance between the judiciary and the state, the size of the public administration, or the inter-connections between political parties and banks and industrial companies. Italy's bicameral system is by no means perfect, but it is good enough and perfectly capable of producing stable coalitions - such as the one we now have. Without this referendum there would be no question of early elections. The political system itself is a lot more stable than the economy.