I’ve been sent on a fool’s errand: to explain Italian politics.  As those of you who have spent extended periods of time in the “Mediterranean boot” know, this is a challenging task.  Understanding it requires doggedness—and a bit of masochism, too—given the internecine struggles for power and influence, the political divisions, intrigue, and tensions that go back centuries, and the sheer complexity of the country’s legislative and regulatory system.

At the core of this errand is the desire to understand the importance of a pair of successful referendums in northern Italy, both seeking greater “economic devolution.”   Held on October 22 in the wealthy northern regions of Lombardy and Veneto, they were dismissed by some as the fancies of regional extremists; others suggested they were a way for the right-wing Lega Nord (Northern League)—the party that dominates regional politics and which promoted the referendums—to jump-start its nationwide campaign ahead of the country’s March general elections.

Taking place a mere three weeks after Catalonia’s own troubling, at times violent, referendum on secession (illegal under Spain’s constitution), much international attention was focused on the Italian referendums.  In fact, various groups in Lombardy and Veneto, as well as in the province of Südtirol, supported the Catalonia referendum.  So there was keen local interest as well.

The two referendums were called for by the governors of Lombardy and Veneto—respectively, Roberto Maroni and Luca Zaia, both of the Lega Nord.  Lombardy accounts for 20 percent of the country’s GDP, while Veneto produces about 10 percent.  Together they send billions in annual tax revenues to the central government: Lombardy with a net contribution of €54 billion per year, and Veneto with €18 billion.  However—and here’s the rub—the regions argue they receive only a fraction of this back as fiscal transfers from Rome.

The referendums thus sought greater autonomy—and “economic devolution”—from Rome.  Organizers wanted a clear mandate to start negotiations across nearly two-dozen sectors—including education, immigration, taxation, and safety—all of which currently fall under the competence of the state.  Agreeing which sectors should be devolved to the regions and exactly how the “relocation of each competence” will be financed is just one of the challenges ahead.  Another is that any ensuing agreement would still have to be approved by parliament.

The referendums were criticized for their combined cost—which was estimated at €40-50 million—particularly given the fact that they were not really necessary.  Under the country’s 1948 Constitution, all 20 Italian regions have the right to request negotiations with the central government on specific questions of regional autonomy, fiscal federalism, and economic devolution.  In fact, the region of Emilia-Romagna, held by the center-left Partito Democratico (Democratic Party), exercised this very right by seeking direct negotiations with Rome without a prior regional referendum.

But organizers of both referendums argued they were indeed necessary to give them a stronger voice, all the more since previous attempts to seek more autonomy had failed.  A few years ago, Italy’s Constitutional Court rejected similar public soundings proposed by Veneto’s governor asking voters if they wished to secede and if they wanted the region to keep more of its tax revenues.  This time, in consideration of the more vague—and safer—wording, the Court had no objections.

In the end, the turnout in the two regions differed considerably, but the results were nearly the same.  In Lombardy, with a turnout of 40 percent, more than 95 percent voted in favor of greater economic devolution.  In Veneto, the turnout was 58 percent with more than 98 percent voting yes.  So despite the fact that these were merely “consultative referendums,” the results demonstrated widespread support and gave regional governments a mandate to push for greater autonomy.

“What most deserves to be emphasized is the extensive popular participation,” says Alberto Addolori, Vice-President of the conservative Margaret Thatcher Circle in Venice.  “The turn-out showed how underrepresented by the central government the population feels . . . but it will no longer be possible to ignore and disregard the ‘will of the people.’”  In fact, the results expressed people’s belief “that self-government is achievable—and may be an answer to their problems,” says Alberto Mingardi, director general of the classical-liberal think tank Istituto Bruno Leoni.

Some see the results as demonstrating a resurgence of separatism and express fears that such a resurgence could influence other regions—such as Sardinia and Sicily, which have long expressed a desire for self-determination—to seek more local power.  In fact, it’s worth noting that on the same day in Veneto there was even a subregional referendum held in the province of Belluno, in the shadow of the Dolomites, for greater autonomy and independence from the region of Veneto itself.  The results were extraordinary, with a turnout of 52 percent voting 99-percent in favor.

Still,  others doubt that separatism will solve Italy’s underlying problems.  Kishore Jayabalan, director of the Rome-based Istituto Acton, wisely notes, “The richer regions in the North may feel better about not sending money to the South, but I don’t see how this would change anything.  Italy will sink or swim together.”

To put the regional referendums into context, a closer look at the history of Italian referendums and reform efforts is instructive.  The Republic of Italy itself owes its very existence to a referendum, held in June 1946, when voters were asked to choose between a Republic or the monarchy (House of Savoy) of 1861.  With a turnout of 89 percent, Italians voted 54 percent to 46 percent against the monarchy.

Two years later, the 1948 Italian Constitution (under Article 116) created five regions—Sardinia, Sicily, Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol, Aosta Valley, and Friuli-Venezia Giulia—each under a “special statute.”  This effectively granted “home rule” to these regions.  The creation of the five regions was granted in recognition of ethnic, linguistic, and other unique or historical circumstances.  But it was also a way the Italian government could ensure that the five regions would not secede from the young republic in the wake of World War II.

The Constitution of 1948 also laid the foundation for the subsequent creation of a system of “ordinary” regions under Article 115, though further legislation was still needed to establish the mechanisms and structures for the creation of these regions.  Incredibly, this was not to occur until the 1970’s.  The result was not a simple or uniform structure, as each of the 20 regions was given a unique and “individualized relationship” with the state through different regional statutes.

While the constitution as a whole was widely accepted, there have been repeated efforts over the past 70 years to adjust or modify different aspects of it.  In 2001, a Constitutional Reform Act introduced a regulatory framework to govern the regional powers.  But it raised new problems by allowing each region to make individual requests to Rome, which is cumbersome and difficult for Roman authorities to manage.  Thus, “a vast grey area” remains, says a former Italian minister for regional affairs and local communities, where the distinct responsibilities between the central government and the regions are unclear or shared.

The most recent reform attempt to help clarify matters was in December 2016, when then-Prime Minister Matteo Renzi of the center-left Democratic Party sought various alterations to the powers of regions and the composition of the Italian parliament.  He failed miserably, which forced his resignation.

Amid the high drama and the tangle of reform efforts, some scholars argue that there is a clear trend toward greater regional autonomy in Italy.  But the country’s history of referendums suggests a different interpretation.  “So far, no request on the part of a regional government to broaden the scope of their jurisdiction has ever succeeded in being approved by the Italian Parliament (as required by law),” scoffs Mingardi.  That is the state batting a thousand.

My own assessment—after reading through stacks of studies and monographs focusing on constitutional reforms, referendums, and the special laws and exceptions that have been passed, debated, and repealed—is that the October referendums were part of a long, venerable tradition of brash efforts and vigorous resistance.

In the end, one has to recognize that the Italian constitution, though a strange bird, has preserved national unity.  While in many ways the country remains somewhat chaotic and fractured, it has somehow managed to limp along from year to year.  But it remains heavily indebted.  As of only a few months ago, Italy’s debt was estimated at €2.3 trillion, or 132 percent of GDP—which amounts to a staggering €38,000 per capita—according to the Bank of Italy.  This is more than seven times the total Greek debt.  (It’s worth keeping in mind that, as of 2014, Rome was still paying off debts incurred from hosting the 1960 Olympics.)  Given such circumstances, Italy’s is indeed a tragic tale.

In this tale, the difference between the north and the south looms large.  Of the country’s 20 regions, only 4 in the north—Lombardy, Veneto, Piedmont, and Emilia-Romagna—are net contributors to central-government revenues.  The rest receive transfers.  With regard to social services, public spending is €200 per capita in some northern regions but less than €50 per capita in some southern ones.  As for healthcare, although regional authorities retain total administrative control, the financial resources are completely centralized (for later redistribution).  Thus, the October referendums’ quest for greater regional autonomy effectively cuts across various fault lines between the north and south, many of which date back to well before the 19th-century Risorgimento.  This is the explanation for the contentious Northern Question.

At the heart of this question are glaring cultural, economic, and political divisions that have existed for centuries.  Robert Putnam, in his classic book Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy (1993), studied Italy’s 20 regions and observed huge differences in the efficiency and effectiveness of governments in the north and south.  He looked to regional institutions for answers, but concluded that local culture and history matter much, much more.  Putnam concluded by praising the north’s civic traditions and social attitudes, which he thought originated in the medieval communes and guilds.

Today, the northern regions continue to have greater administrative, managerial, and technical capacity than those in the south.  The referendums brought the Northern Question “back to the center of the Italian scene,” says Mingardi.  The Northern Question thus remains, according to journalist Stefano Magni, the “most important issue in Italy.”  A young Roman entrepreneur, Dario Petrone, notes, “We don’t know what our southern politicians might do, but the referendums have certainly opened a door.”

Unfortunately, voters in the next elections may have few options to express their sympathies for outright independence or secession.  The main political parties no longer cater to or express any strong federalist or pro-independence sentiments.  This puts voters in a bind.  “Italians may [want] more federalism; but no political party now wants to build on this need,” says Mingardi.

Not even the Lega Nord has preserved such a message.  The Lega was founded in 1991 through an alliance of the pro-autonomy Lega Lombarda (then led by the now-disgraced Umberto Bossi) and analogous groups in Piedmont and Veneto.  In its early years, the Lega—whose full name was Lega Nord per l’Indipendenza della Padania—had called for the formation of a new country comprising 14 regions.  This scheme was elaborated upon in 1996 in a “Declaration of Independence and Sovereignty of Padania.”

“Padania” has been the subject of much scholarly work and debate.  Technically, it refers to the Po Valley (Pianura Padana) in Northern Italy.  But it was a book, published in 1990, by the late political scientist Gianfranco Miglio, later a senator for the Lega, which first conceived of it as the basis for a constitutional reform that would divide Italy into three “macro-regions.”  Miglio’s proposal, however, never gained traction; instead, the Lega began to push for regional independence, fiscal federalism—and, at times, outright secession.

Over the years, the Lega has toned down its secessionist rhetoric in an effort to gain broader appeal.  As a result, recognizing that they cannot survive by waging a long-term battle for regional secession, party leaders have chosen prudence over principle, and have preferred to enter center-right coalitions—as they did in 2001, Mingardi explains.  This tactic has paid off, with the Lega gaining support beyond its traditional northern enclaves.

Party leader Matteo Salvini has completely reshaped the Lega—including by removing the geographical adjective Nord from its name.  Even the party’s original federalist disposition has been downplayed.  The dominant trends inside the Lega are now the promotion of cultural identity, economic sovereignty, and political nationalism—along with opposition to free-market capitalism, globalization, and multiculturalism.

“His creature is barely recognizable from the forty-year-old autonomist/secessionist party founded by Bossi,” says Magni.  It is now a nationalist party, which defends Italian national interests and rails against immigration, the E.U., and the “globalist” agenda.  “The only secession they can envision,” says Mingardi, “is Italy’s from the E.U.”  This is the exact opposite of what the Lega stood for in the 1990’s, he notes, “when they wanted Northern Italy to secede and join the monetary union of the E.U.”

The Lega has no precedent in the history of Italian political parties.  The origins of prominent Lega politicians like Mario Borghezio are firmly rooted in neofascist pan-Europeanist movements like Jeune Europe, which had its heyday in the 1960’s.  In contrast, Salvini himself is a former communist who is “recycling his authoritarianism” into a far-right agenda, says Magni.  The result is an odd mixture of influences, and reports suggest that far-right conspiracy theories—against the New World Order and international finance—are rampant within the Lega.

The old Lega Nord had more in common with other secessionist parties in Western Europe.  Today, young militants in the Lega align more with France’s Front National.  The old Lega subscribed to a libertarian agenda, and even tolerated some leftist ideals.  It was more intellectually interesting, more visionary.  “But that old party—and its main figures—has almost vanished,” says Magni.

Meanwhile, populist movements—of the left and of the right—in Italy continue to grow.  “Commentators complain about ‘populism’ as [if it were] something novel on the political scene,” declares Mingardi.  There is nothing new about Italian populism, which is fundamentally nationalistic.  “The ‘populists’ on the right are basically fascists and the ‘populists’ on the left are basically communists,” he notes.  The only difference between populist movements like the Lega and older kinds of fascists and communists, Mingardi says wryly, “is that in the 20th century [such] political extremists were literate.  They read their D’Annunzio and they read their Gramsci.  Today’s ‘populists,’ instead, have problems in reading anything longer than a tweet.”

In the end, despite the anger and frustrations of the electorate, the country as a whole may be worse off if such populist parties triumph at the polls.  “They may succeed in changing the Italian political system—but for the worse,” says Mingardi.  “What has been happening in other European countries must serve as a warning to the ‘ruling class,’” Addolori adds, “otherwise the consequences will be unpredictable.”

In some ways the future of Italy may be the future of Europe, writ small.  For many analysts, Catalonia and the Italian referendums are “symptoms of the dissolution of the European order,” Magni suggests.  That might be overstating the case a bit.  But there can be little doubt that, as he puts it, “the spirit of this new century is fragmentation and self-rule.”  In this, European populist movements may be serving an important role, responding to rising levels of anger and resentment—and, in some cases, successfully capitalizing on these sentiments.

In an eloquent tribute to early Lega leader Gianfranco Miglio, published in January, Mingardi argues that the “growing monopolization of power” that marks the modern age should be offset with “a plurality of decision-making centers [that are] resistant . . . to [such] centralizing tendencies.”  Perhaps an Italy comprising strong regions or macro-regions could save the country from its central government.  But creating these requires Italians to become more engaged in local politics.  “Italians need to demand more from their politicians at all levels,” says Jayabalan.  “Since most politics is local, they should start there and work their way up to the nation and the Continent.”

The referendums demonstrated one thing quite clearly: Veneto is a veritable hotbed of independent thinking and “radical localism.”   Venetians are most radical in their resistance to the state and their quest for greater autonomy.  Even unapologetic secessionist thought has a home in Veneto: In March 2014, a nonbinding online referendum in Venice overwhelmingly supported an unofficial “declaration of independence” from Italy.  A strong regional identity also plays a role here.  Venetians have kept their dialect alive, as well as the memory of their glorious past as a former maritime power for over a millennium.  Today, La Serenissima is strong, healthy, and assertive.  These sentiments—and the fierce pride and dignity with which Venetians speak—hold the most promise to inspire some great thing in the mass of men and women throughout the rest of Italy.

“Italy has administrative and political problems, without a doubt.  Taxes and regulations are stifling; the complexities of the law invite corruption and general disregard for the common good,” according to Jayabalan.  But it also has a lot to offer: wealth, a talented workforce, a solid constitution with the right to autonomy built into it.  What the country needs now, it seems, is to find and elect fearless regional political leaders who are willing to stand up to the Roman establishment and other entrenched powers, who have the political courage to deal with the Northern Question, and who, in the long term, are committed to “deconstructing the administrative state.”  The Italian swamps need draining, too.

Regardless of Italy’s future trajectory, there can be little doubt that we are witnessing today the slow reassertion of the small and the local over the large and the global.  “The future is in little democracies,” says Magni.  Will the Lombardy and Veneto referendums contribute to such a trend?  We can only hope.