When Matteo Renzi became Italian prime minister in 2014, he was all about youth.
The youngest premier in Italy’s history, Mr. Renzi was snapped in photos riding his bike or clad in unbuttoned collars and leather coats. The self-labeled “demolition man,” he promised to shake Italy’s gerontocratic and gridlocked political establishment.
But as his greatest moment for reform arrives – Italians vote Sunday on a constitutional referendum intended to reshape the way government works – it is precisely the young Italians who have abandoned his vision of renewal.
“We had lots of hopes when he came to office,” says Rebecca Silvagni, a student at Sapienza University of Rome who plans to vote “no.” “Renzi is the establishment, the reforms strengthen the establishment, and a no vote is anti-establishment.”
Dissident fervor is growing on both sides of the Atlantic. In the US and swaths of Europe, it has buoyed the far right, with the next test Austria’s presidential elections Sunday. Much of that has been driven by older voters, left behind by globalization or rejecting the changes immigration has brought to societies.
In southern Europe, where youth unemployment remains crippling high, the populist surge has been propped up by the younger generation, with Italy’s Five Star Movement – a leftist, anti-establishment movement led by comedian Beppe Grillo – rocking the political landscape. That has resulted in Renzi looking exactly like the mainstream politician he dismissed at the outset of his premiership. It’s also leaving his constitutional reform efforts, and his career, on the line.
“It is only the oldest voters who have a preference for ‘Yes,’” says Luca Comodo, the director at the polling firm Ipsos in Italy. “Renzi is now considered a representative of the system. He lost his capacity to be a reformer.... So paradoxically, it seems almost absurd, the idea for change is now to vote ‘no’ to change.”
According to an October survey by Doxa, a market research firm, “No” is ahead by 5 points, but among those under 35, “No” wins by 13 points, compared to “Yes” ahead by 9 points for those over 55. Up to a quarter of voters were still undecided before a mid-November blackout on polls.
The constitutional reform itself would, among other moves, reduce the number of seats in the upper house of parliament and take away some power from the regions. Both are touted as efforts to make it easier to pass laws in Italy, infamous for political stagnation.
Leonardo Tripelli, a young activist on the side of “Yes,” believes Renzi’s reform is the way to boost faith in failed politics. “The political class is the fruit of the current system, so by changing the system it will be easier to change the political class,” he says.
But the mood at his university points to an unpredictable Sunday. Sapienza University was built in Benito Mussolini’s time, with brutalist-style architecture. Many buildings are plastered with handwritten posters in red and black ink calling to “send Renzi home.”
Margharita Benvenuti, a chemistry student, says “Yes” would change little in her daily life. “The reforms would break the old system to an extent, but they don’t reflect the people’s interests but the interests of the elite,” she says.
Young people’s dismissal of Renzi as part of the establishment has many roots. While the prime minister did foster youthful leaders in his own party and brought women to his government, his reform package hasn’t solved the biggest problem of all: that young people can’t find jobs. And that has impacted their parents, the strongest “No” supporters, according to Doxa, who are supporting them at home while their mortgages aren’t paid off or their own jobs at risk.
Daniele Albertazzi, a senior lecturer in European politics at the University of Birmingham, puts it this way. “It’s not just the ‘young’ in the English or American sense, 20-year-olds, but I mean even young in the Italian sense, [those] between 10 and 40 years old. There are at least two or three generations that have really been forgotten.”
Renzi was also the victim of timing, perhaps taking over the country too early, before he sealed his credentials as a reformer. And the Five Star Movement surged alongside him, giving younger people a more radical alternative for change.
“There is no doubt people want politics to cost less money, and they would be happy if there were much fewer MPs in power,” says Mr. Albertazzi. But Italians have lost trust that this referendum is the best, or only, way to effect those changes.
Some are also worried about the content, that it reduces the checks and balances to avoid the emergence of a “strongman.” But most of all, Italians are voting against Renzi, who, like former Prime Minister David Cameron in Britain, said he will step down if he loses. This is seen by many as a tactical error intended to shore up his own legitimacy, and it very well may backfire.
Seeking better change
The combination of financial instability, as a banking crisis looms that could threaten Italy's eurozone membership, and political uncertainty in Europe’s fourth largest economy, has all eyes on Italy.
The big institutions and political heavyweights have come out in favor of “Yes.” But that might not shift opinions.
“People say, I have no confidence in banks or the economic institutions that contributed to the [financial] crisis, why should I listen to them now?” says Mr. Comodo, the pollster.
At the same, time, the era of political uncertainty, and Donald Trump’s election in the US, could be an asset for Renzi, especially among his oldest supporters, says Piero Ignazi, a political science professor at the University of Bologna. “[Renzi] can say, ‘we can step forward with renewal but we don’t risk anything, we don’t risk any chaos or instability,’” he says.
But he suspects it won’t make younger people budge, which poses a problem for Renzi, and Italy, even if he is successful Sunday.
“That is a problem for the future, of course, if you don’t have support of young people,” he says, “not only in the long run but also in short and medium term.”
Young people have had little success at the ballot box in Europe – they backed "Remain" in Brexit, for example, and Spain’s left-wing Podemos ultimately failed to oust the ruling conservative party from power. Many hope that in Italy Sunday, the youth vote prevails – and precipitates major change.
Filippo Barone, a third-year politics student voting “No,” was hunched over his laptop by a window in the corner of a smoky students’ study room on a recent day, a blue woolen scarf wrapped around his neck. He says his “No” is an attempt to change the status quo, but it doesn’t end there.
“ I hope my ‘No’ vote will lead to new proposals,” he says, and “provide the basis for a better reform.”
• Sara Miller Llana reported from Paris.