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Socio-economic drivers of the 2016 Italian referendum vote

Written by Silvia Merler.

On December 4th 2016, Italy held a constitutional referendum in which almost 60% of the voters decided against a reform proposed by the government. The vote triggered the resignation of Prime Minister Renzi and opened a phase of political transition that will lead to new elections in 2018. In light of the elections ahead it is important to understand the factors driving this vote.

I start from the province-level data on referendum outcomes to establish whether any link can be drawn between the vote and various socio-economic characteristics of the provinces. At province level, unemployment is positively and significantly correlated with the NO share of votes in the referendum, suggesting that provinces exhibiting a higher rate of unemployment tended to record a higher share of NO votes. Relatedly, the age profile matters. Provinces with a larger share of young (20-34 years old) residents, had a relatively higher share of NO vote. This is probably linked to the fact that in Italy youth unemployment has increased markedly during the crisis and young people have been bearing a large share of the crisis’ economic cost. Provinces with relatively higher per capita income tend to exhibit a significantly lower share of NO votes. This, together with the finding on unemployment, suggests the existence of a link between indicators of economic “malaise” at the province level and voting outcomes. The share of foreign residents is negatively and significantly correlated with the NO share, and this result is robust to controlling for urbanisation. This finding is interesting given that the Northern League, one of the two parties actively campaigning for NO, has traditionally held strong anti-immigration position. Lastly, the share of population with at least some education is positively related with NO vote, suggesting this outcome was not systematically driven by voters with no education.

This analysis has one obvious weakness: by using province-level voting outcomes we can observe interesting correlation with socio-economic characteristics of the provinces in which NO prevailed, but we cannot say anything about what drove individuals to vote in a certain way, let alone drive any conclusion on what they might vote in a general election and why. To mitigate this problem, I ran another analysis using individual-level polling data. The data is taken from a survey run by SWG for Macro Advisory Partners on November 30th 2016. It covers about 2000 respondents who were asked detailed question on their voting choices in the 2014 European Parliament elections, their voting intentions in the referendum, and in case a general election was to be held soon. Using a Probit model, I investigate the determinants of voting intentions in these three different votes.

Once again, age is significantly and negatively correlated with the NO vote. Education is not significant but compared to people with zero or just primary schooling, the other educational cohorts are not systematically more likely to vote NO. Unemployment is positively correlated with the likelihood to vote NO at the individual level, but it becomes insignificant when including an indicator for the perceived economic situation of respondents. This suggests it is not unemployment per se that drives voting intentions, but rather the negative economic situation that may be associated with it. Economic malaise is indeed a powerful predictor of voting intentions, also at the individual level: compared to people who define themselves as “well off”, all those who see themselves as less fortunate are more likely to vote NO.

When looking at those who said they would vote for the Democratic Party in a future election, results are similar. Older people seem to be relatively more inclined to vote for the government party and educational levels are again insignificant, although the party seems to appeal more to voters with higher education. Interestingly, and consistently with what found in the province-level analysis, unemployment does not seem to be a statistically significant factor in explaining the 2014 European Parliament vote, but it is significant – when included alone – for voting intentions in a post-referendum election. This may indicate that some voters felt let down by a government who had put the improvement of labour market conditions at the core of its domestic agenda. If this is the case, it is not surprising that these voters voted against a reform to which the life of such government was tied, and that they plan to vote against that government’s party in the ensuing elections. Once again, economic perception appears very important in driving the voting intentions, as those people who declare to have “big problems” reaching the end of the month as well as self-declared poor people appear relatively less in inclined to vote for the Democratic Party.

Overall, this analysis points to a strong correlation of economic factors with both voting intentions and voting outcomes in the Italian referendum. There are differences with the Brexit case, when it comes to both the generational divide and the effect of educational attainment. In Italy, those who voted NO and plan to vote against the government party in future elections tend to be younger, and do not have a systematically lower educational attainment. The existence of a sense of economic “malaise”, which we see in the importance of unemployment and relative economic hardship, seems to be a decisive factor. Populism has played an important role in the Italian political scene, since the outbreak of the economic crisis. But these data suggest that it would be too simplistic to interpret this vote simply as the latest case of a populist polling success. Deeper factors of socio-economic nature seem to have played a more significant role and the question that logically follows is whether and how populists will be able to build on these factors in view of the coming elections.

Silvia Merler is a PhD student at Johns Hopkins SAIS and an Affiliate Fellow at the Bruegel Think Tank. She tweets at @SMerlerIdeas in this piece were originally presented at the EPOP 2017 conference hosted by the School of Politics and International Relations between 8-10th September 2017. Image credit: CC by President of Russia.

Published inEuropean PoliticsEuroscepticismEurozone

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