On Sunday Italian voters rejected, 59 to 41 percent, a package of government reform measures backed by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. Defeated, Renzi promptly resigned. New elections will be held early next year, perhaps as early as February, in contravention of Italy's usually civilized practice of holding them in the good-weather months of May and October.
Was the Italian result an example of the demotic and ethnic core of the nation voting against the political and cultural center and the ethnic or geographic fringes? That was the pattern, I argued in an October Washington Examiner column, both in the Brexit referendum in Britain June 23 and the FARC peace agreement in Colombia on Oct. 2. In both cases, the capital metropolitan area and the fringes — Scotland and Northern Ireland in the U.K., the Caribbean and Pacific coasts in Colombia — voted with the political, financial and media establishments, but the margin in the demotic core — England outside metro London, the Colombian cordillera beyond metro Bogota — cast enough votes the other way to produce an upset defeat for the establishment.
In Italy things were different. For one thing, the governmental capital, Rome, is significantly smaller and less affluent than the financial and economic capital, Milan. More important, when you look at the breakdown of the vote by regions and the provinces within them, what you see resembles the traditional patterns of support for the center-left and center-right political parties (whose names and leaders have changed significantly over the years).
The si (yes) vote was highest in the regions traditionally supporting Renzi's Partito Democratico, a (thoroughly democratized) descendant of post-World War II Italy's Communist party. Toscana voted 53 percent si, Emilia Romagna 50.4 percent si and Umbria 49 percent si. The highest si percentage, 54 percent, was in small northern region of Trento-Alto Adige, whose German-speaking half*, the province of Bolzano, voted 64 percent si. It appears to be a case, as in Britain and Colombia, of an ethnic hinterland voting with the national establishment.
There's some resemblance to the British and Colombian patterns also in the fact that Lombardia, the richest region in Italy, voted only 55 percent no, and that the central city of Milan voted 51 percent si. In earlier elections, Milano Centro was the chosen parliamentary seat of Silvio Berlusconi, leader of the center-right coalitions that prevailed in the elections of 1992, 1994, 2001 and 2006.
The strongest regions for the Berlusconi parties were the far from identical twin regions of Lombardia and Sicily. But they weren't twins in this referendum. Sicily voted 72 percent no, as did the other major offshore island Sardegna, and the vote in the for mainland regions of the Mezzogiorno (the south) was between 66 and 69 percent no. The city of Rome voted 59 percent no.
Italy's partisan divisions have been longstanding. I've had a theory that they date back at least to the period 1943-48, between the Italian surrender and Nazi occupation and the first postwar election, and that they reflect the views of the forces in those awful chaotic years of 1943-45 which in each part of the country were the effective opponents of the Nazis locally.
In the south and eventually around Rome, these were the Allied military forces and the Catholic center-right. In the area north of Rome — Toscana, Emilia Romagna, Umbria — they were the Communist partisans, who lent legitimacy to the postwar Communist party. Around Milan, the anti-Nazi forces were ineffective up until May 1945, leaving the area mixed; in the Veneto in the northeast, the threat was Tito's Communist partisans in Yugoslavia, and the move was to the political right.
But perhaps the roots of the regional divisions go back many centuries further, as Robert Putnam suggested in his book on the roots of Italy's civic traditions, maybe even to the medieval struggles between pro-papal Guelphs and pro-imperial Ghibellines. But we don't have much electoral data on that.
*By the way, this area was the homeland of former Senator and presidential candidate Rick Santorum's father, Otto Santorum. It only became Italian territory in the peace settlement after World War I; Santorum's grandfather served in that war in the Austro-Hungarian forces, facing Czarist Russia on the eastern front.