Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi bet it all on Sunday's referendum, and he may well lose

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's job is on the line Sunday
(Image credit: Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images)

This year has been an unsteady one for popular referenda and a good one for populism — votes in favor of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union, against a Colombian deal to end the FARC civil war, and the election of Donald Trump all defied expectations and the advice of civic leaders and most experts. On Sunday, Italy has its own big referendum, and it could go very badly for the government of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, whose proposals are on the table. He has pledged to resign if Italy votes "no."

The most recent polls suggest Italy may well reject the changes, which overhaul the legislature in an attempt to streamline the government and make it easier to pass legislation. The "no" side leads by as much as 8 percentage points, but 20 percent of Italians are undecided. Renzi's changes would reduce the size of the Senate to 100 seats, from 315, and turn it largely into a consultative body, taking away its power to topple governments with a no-confidence vote. The central government would also assume some of the overlapping powers also claimed by regional governments.

Opponents of the changes, led by the rising populist 5 Star Movement but also ex-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's conservative party, argue the changes would give the prime minister too much power. The young voters who helped push Renzi, 41, to power in 2014 are leading the opposition to the referendum, due to anger at the establishment and 35 percent youth unemployment.

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If Renzi resigns, the president will likely appoint a caretaker government led by Renzi's Democratic Party, and the legislature would have to come up with a new electoral law, allowing for new elections as early as next fall. That has the market spooked, due largely to the possibility that the 5 Star Movement could win; the movement, led by 68-year-old former comedian Beppe Grillo, wants a referendum on dropping the euro currency and to renegotiate Italy's $2.1 trillion debt. A "no" vote therefore might spark a crisis in Italy's weak banking sector. BBC News runs through the potential negative repercussions in the video below. Peter Weber

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Peter Weber

Peter Weber is a senior editor at, and has handled the editorial night shift since the website launched in 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian and plays bass and rhythm cello in an Austin rock band. Follow him on Twitter.