Rio de Janeiro native Renato Agonigi hardly knew that Italy was holding a referendum on constitutional reform until this week. Now he’s deciding which way to vote.
With the “Yes” and “No” camps virtually tied before the Dec. 4 referendum, both campaigns are trying to reach the approximately 4 million Italian passport holders living overseas as they fight for every ballot. Minister for Constitutional Reforms Maria Elena Boschi flew to South America and North America last month to campaign, while her opponents plan events in Zurich, London and Moscow.
“A couple days before the ballot, I will ask my cousin in Italy for advice and make up my mind,” Agonigi, a 58-year-old whose parents emigrated from Tuscany after World War II, said in a telephone interview. “So far, I have no idea of what the referendum is about. Unless you work for the consulate or you are politically involved, you are unlikely to follow those developments in Italy.”
A little more than five weeks before the ballot on reforms that Prime Minister Matteo Renzi says are needed to streamline the government, Italy’s main pollsters signal that voters are almost equally split, with the naysayers slightly ahead. While the surveys don’t take into the views of overseas voters, history suggests they might break in favor of Renzi. In the 2013 general election his Democratic Party was their No. 1 pick.
The most likely scenario is a victory for “No” by a small margin, JPMorgan economist Marco Protopapa wrote in a note on Friday. London-based Protopapa added that faced with a defeat, Renzi would likely offer his resignation to the president of the Republic, who would reject it and invite the premier to verify that he has the support of a majority in the parliament.
The five biggest foreign communities of Italian voters are in Argentina, Germany, Switzerland, France and Brazil as expats overall account for about 8 percent of eligible voters, according to data from the Interior Ministry. Some are unsure about getting dragged into a political dispute that barely concerns them.
“I will likely vote ‘No,”’ said Armando Manzo, 52, speaking by telephone from his clothes shop in Mar del Plata, Argentina. “To be honest with you, I am not too sure that Italians abroad should have a say on issues that don’t seem to affect them at all.” His parents emigrated to the South American nation from Italy’s central region of Molise in the 1950s.
In Buenos Aires, 65-year-old Italian native Edda Cinarelli, seems to agree.
“I am scared about Argentinians holding an Italian passport who don’t know what the vote is about,” said the retired school teacher, who arrived in the Argentine capital in 1979. “Holding a passport doesn’t mean you’re really Italian.”
Reconnect With Home
Boschi, the main proponent of Renzi’s reform, says the referendum is an opportunity for Italians to reconnect with their homeland.
“I am asking you to be there, to decide to count” in this vote, Boschi told Argentinian Italians in a Buenos Aires theater Sept. 26 as she sought more ‘Yes” votes. “The important thing is that you will be part of this moment which is crucial for our country.”
Under the proposed overhaul, the new Senate would retain key powers on matters such as the relations between Italy and European Union, with local and regional officials holding a majority in the chamber. Renzi says key parts of the reform would also let parliament handle legislation more expeditiously, and trim lawmakers’ ability to bring down governments.
The reform would also put an end to the right of Italians abroad to vote for the upper house, a point many expats may be unaware of.
“The paradox is that in case of a victory of ‘Yes,’ the new Senate would no longer include senators elected abroad,"said Francesco Galietti, head of the Rome-based consulting firm Policy Sonar. “Renzi is asking Italians abroad to waive –- or at best considerably reduce -- their representation.”
The campaigns have also been active on social media, with dozens of committees set up from Shanghai to Malindi in Kenya.
The “Yes” group invites Italian Londoners -- about a quarter of a million in total -- to drinks at the capital’s Italian restaurants and tweets to students and workers: “Wait until Christmas to go back home. You can vote in the referendum even from abroad.” Similar initiatives are happening in Switzerland, Germany, and Belgium.
One picture grabbed particular attention and was attacked on social media as a sign of the “Yes” campaign’s desperation. A pro-reform group in Kenya shared on Facebook a picture taken in a Malindi shopping mall of four Masai tribe members -- probably unaware -- posing next to a “Yes” poster. They were security guards, the group said.
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