ROME (Reuters) – A referendum over Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s flagship constitutional reform will be held on Dec. 4, a government official said on Monday, with the fate of the Italian government likely to hinge on the outcome.
Renzi says the reform will bring much-needed political stability to Italy and has repeatedly pledged to resign if voters reject his proposals to cut the powers of the upper house Senate and reduce the number of parliamentarians.
However, some recent opinion polls have put the ‘No’ camp ahead and Renzi now refuses to be drawn on his future, saying he does not want the issue to dominate the referendum debate.
Renzi originally said he wanted to hold the ballot in early October, but he has pushed back the vote to one of the last practicable dates allowed to him by law to give the government more time to win over a sceptical electorate.
“This date gives us time to carry on a conversation with citizens about the reform,” cabinet undersecretary Claudio De Vincenti told reporters.
The constitutional reform, which was approved by parliament in April after almost two years of fierce debate, effectively abolishes the Senate as an elected chamber and prevents it from bringing down a government via a vote of no-confidence.
Under the current system, the upper and lower houses of parliament have equal powers and critics say this is one of the reasons why Italy has had 63 governments since World War Two, none of them strong enough to survive a full five-year term.
Renzi was highly confident he would win the referendum six months ago when he staked his political career on the result, but the backdrop has since changed drastically.
The economy has unexpectedly slowed after growing just 0.7 percent last year and Britain voted in June to quit the European Union, sending a shockwave through the 28-nation bloc.
There has also been a souring of opinions regarding the 41-year-old Renzi. His swagger was welcomed by voters at first, bringing his Democratic Party more than 40 percent in the 2014 European election, but now many see him as too arrogant and his approval rating has dropped to around 30 percent.
In the meantime the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement has gained ground, winning the mayorship of Rome in June. Beppe Grillo, the comedian who founded the movement, announced at the weekend that he would return to running the group full time after giving up management two years ago.
All opposition parties have lined up to denounce the constitutional reform, with some critics arguing that it strips Italy of vital democratic checks and balances put in place after World War Two to prevent the emergence of a new strongman.
An opinion poll by Eumetra Monterosa published on Monday said 55 percent were set to vote ‘No’ against 45 percent backing ‘Yes’. By contrast, a survey by pollster Ixe Institute also released on Monday said ‘Yes’ was at 44 percent, ‘No’ at 38 percent, with some 18 percent of people undecided.
Italy is not due to hold a national election until 2018, but one could be called sooner if Renzi’s government were to fall and President Sergio Mattarella failed to find a stop-gap solution.