ROME - When Matteo Renzi burst onto Italy's national political stage, he set out to consign all that was outdated and ineffective in the country to the scrap heap, pledging to make economically lumbering Italy more competitive.
Now, not even three years into office as premier, Renzi himself risks being trashed.
Much to his alarm, a yes-or-no referendum Sunday on government-championed constitutional reforms has been transformed by rivals into a virtual plebiscite on the 41-year-old leader, Italy's youngest. A win by the “No” camp on a centerpiece reform of his government would be expected to trigger Renzi's resignation.
Some political opponents are also depicting Italy's referendum as an occasion to pass judgment on the country's ruling elite. They hope to tap into the populist fervor bubbling up across much of Europe - and even across the Atlantic, with the U.S. presidential victory by political outsider Donald Trump.
“Go with your gut. Look them in the face and vote ‘No,’” comic Beppe Grillo exhorted several thousand followers of his anti-establishment 5-Star Movement after a march near Rome's ancient Mouth-of-Truth monument.
“Don't do what Beppe Grillo said,” Renzi countered a few days later. “Grillo said vote not with your brain, but with your gut. That's absurd. I say, `vote with your brain. The future of your children depends on it.”'
One of the constitutional reforms would reduce the Senate from 315 to 100 members and strip them of most of their powers, including holding crucial no-confidence votes. The senators would also no longer be elected by voters. With Parliament's current two legislative chambers now required to give not one but two rounds of approval to every bill, Renzi contends the Senate overhaul will accelerate law-making.
Another reform would give some powers now held by the regions to the central government. “Yes” backers say that will reduce the frequent, drawn-out court battles between Rome and Italy's regional governments.
“No” advocates, who include the 5-Star Movement, some former Communists in Renzi's Democratic Party and the anti-immigrant regional Northern League party, argue the measures would erode democracy by strengthening the executive branch too much. That argument is sensitive in a country whose 1948 Constitution was forged after World War II and the disastrous fascist dictatorship of Benito Mussolini.
Constitutional law expert Gino Scaccia told The Associated Press he worries that voters won't examine the reforms' merits but instead will “vote based on their position in favor or against the government.”
Under the constitution, a referendum on changing it can be held under various circumstances. One of them is if at least one-fifth of the lawmakers in one of Parliament's chambers ask for it. That happened in this case, with the 5-Star Movement among the opposition forces spearheading the successful petition for a popular referendum on Renzi's reforms.
Self-assured often to the verge of cockiness, Renzi had promised to resign if voters reject the reforms. But after opinion polls indicated that defeat was likely, Renzi has been on the stump to persuade voters that the ballot is not about him.
“Is it written `obnoxious Renzi' or `let's change this country' on the ballot?” the premier asked on a TV show.
Perhaps Renzi's proudest achievement has been a law making it easier to fire workers, in hopes that Italian employers will hire more whenever the economy picks up. But so far Italy's economy has resisted efforts to get it growing again.
Analysts suggest that a referendum defeat, or even Renzi's resignation, won't terribly rattle the markets or the European Union. Italy's oft-bickering coalition governments have frequently collapsed far short of Parliament's five-year term.
“Governing Italy has always been a difficult affair,” said Carsten Nickel, a Brussels-based political risk analyst for Teneo Intelligence. “Pushing reforms has been difficult.”
So what happens if the “No” camp wins and Renzi resigns?
Since Renzi's Democrats are the largest party in Parliament, the premier, who also leads that party, could well get the nod from Italian President Sergio Mattarella for a new mandate.
Then a rush to hammer out a new electoral law is expected.
Under the latest electoral law, pushed by Renzi's government, the biggest vote-getting party gets a generous bonus of seats in the Chamber of Deputies.
But with Grillo's Five-Stars buoyed by prestigious mayoral wins this year, including in Rome, there is fear among Democrats and the center-right Forza Italia party of media mogul Silvio Berlusconi that Grillo's `'anti-party” Movement would be the one to end up benefiting from the bonus.
“Around the corner there's Grillo, not Berlusconi,” cautioned Sen. Pier Ferdinando Casini, a former Christian Democrat who is backing a “Yes” vote.
Berlusconi, a former three-time premier, insists he'll vote “No.” With a tax fraud conviction keeping the 80-year-old Berlusconi out of public office, his Forza Italia party is largely in disarray.
Should the “No” triumph, the electoral law would have to be scrapped anyway. When it was made, Renzi and his allies assumed the constitutional reforms would be approved, so there are no rules for electing the Senate, just the lower Chamber of Deputies.
Because of a manslaughter conviction from a car accident, Grillo himself cannot hold public office, but a prominent ally in his Movement could run for the premiership.
Still, some of the shine might be off the 5-Stars lately. Rome Mayor Virginia Raggi has turned in a less-than-stellar performance so far. And a scandal in Sicily involving 5-Star politicians threatens to tarnish the Movement, whose battle cries include “Honesty! Honesty!”
Whether what analyst Nickel calls “the politics of anger” figure in whether Italians tick “Yes” or “No” on Sunday will be ripe for dissection after the votes are tallied.