If he quits, it is not immediately clear what would happen next. The straightforward answer would be for Italy to hold national elections a year ahead of schedule.
But Renzi was so confident of victory in the referendum that he introduced a new electoral law in 2015 just for the lower house, believing the Senate would no longer be in play. To avoid using different electoral systems for the two houses, parliament would have to devise a new election law, which could take much of 2017.
President Sergio Mattarella, the supreme arbiter of Italian politics, could ask Renzi to oversee this reform as head of a so-called “single-purpose government”, but the prime minister’s allies say he would never agree to such a limited mandate.
“Renzi can’t serve as a safety car,” PD lawmaker Matteo Richetti told Reuters, referring to the car that takes to the track after accidents in Formula One motor racing.
If Renzi is not prepared to be a figurehead leader, government officials contacted by Reuters said Economy Minister Pier Carlo Padoan or Senate speaker Pietro Grasso were the most likely candidates to step into the breach.
Padoan, a former official at the International Monetary Fund, would be seen as particularly market-friendly in what are likely to be turbulent times.
But a Padoan or Grasso government could not take office without Renzi’s blessing, because it will need the backing of his PD party to survive. Renzi’s allies fear he will be held responsible for its actions even if he is not prime minister.
“All those who are demanding a ‘No’ vote should support a government that prepares the way for elections. But that won’t happen. They are going to create an almighty mess and expect us to clear it up,” said Richetti.
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