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Matteo Renzi may be Italy’s young and social-media friendly prime minister, but he has visibly failed to win over Camilla Rossini, a 21-year-old political science student at the University of Bologna. 

Ms Rossini could easily have been a natural fan of Mr Renzi’s. Her family leans to the left, like the 41-year-old former mayor of Florence, and she comes from Trento, a northern Italian city that boasts one of the most successful local economies in the country and has been spared the worst effects of the economic crisis.

But as she walks under the porticoes near her lecture halls, Rossini says she will almost certainly vote to reject constitutional reforms championed by Mr Renzi in a high-stakes referendum set for December 4.

Although she is sympathetic to the substance of the reform — which would dramatically curb the powers of the Italian senate — she believes that the prime minister rammed it through parliament without getting sufficient support from opposition parties. Moreover, she complains that Mr Renzi’s campaign has been far too superficial. “It seems like he keeps repeating slogans without explaining the real issues,” Ms Rossini says. “I agree that we need change, but I don’t agree with how this change was done. We needed a lot more unity,” she says.

Ms Rossini’s reservations point to a broader problem for Mr Renzi as he battles to clinch victory in the Italian referendum: he is struggling to bring the younger generations on board with him. 

While the most recent national polls have shown the “yes” camp backed by Mr Renzi trailing slightly behind the “no” vote, that gap widens significantly among Italians aged 18 to 34. According to one survey by Doxa, released this month, Mr Renzi’s campaign is losing by 13 percentage points in that age cohort and the only age category in which it is winning is among those aged over 55, mostly retirees. 

Such difficulty is striking — almost paradoxical — for a prime minister who rose to power in February 2014 with a youthful dynamism aimed at transforming Italy’s staid political system and modernising its moribund economy. The constitutional changes themselves were designed to appeal to Italians desperate for renewal — as many younger voters are. 

Nevertheless, political analysts say Mr Renzi’s troubles can be easily explained by the disproportionate toll inflicted on young Italians by the bruising triple-dip recession and weak recovery that followed. Under Mr Renzi’s government, youth unemployment dropped from 43 per cent to 38.8 per cent, but remains extremely high compared with the EU average.

Meanwhile, many young Italians channelled their disenchantment by backing the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, which is campaigning for a “no” vote in the referendum. “Renzi is an alien to young people, he hasn’t been able to establish any kind of connection with them,” says Piero Ignazi, a professor of political science at the University of Bologna. 

In nearby piazza Verdi, a bastion of leftwing student activism in the city for decades, Fabio D’Alfonso, a 24-year old student who is trying to mobilise youth opposition to the reform, hopes the referendum will draw out all the angst of his generation. “We want this ‘no’ to capture the voices of all those who feel excluded from the paths of political participation in this country,” he says. 

The prime minister is not, however, giving up. Mr Renzi has personally attended university events in Pisa and Palermo — and, in Bologna, the Democratic party (PD) this month organised a meeting at a university dormitory to help rally the youth vote. “Twenty year olds grew up with a political class which never did what they promised during the campaigns, so it is normal that they should be sceptical,” says Francesca Puglisi, a PD senator. “But we are changing Italy and we are pushing through a very important reform that will give them a future,” she added. 

Ilaria De Simone, a 21 year old, admits to being torn

Some in the audience were enthusiastic. “I will vote yes with conviction because I believe in the beneficial effects of this reform, we need to take a step forward,” says Silvia Ventrucci, a 26-year-old trainee lawyer.

Ginevra Poli, a masters student at Johns Hopkins University, thinks Mr Renzi has an “ego problem” but may back the reforms. “I grew up with people saying we have to reform our institutions: this is a compromise but it’s the best we can achieve right now,” she says. She also fears that if the “no” vote prevails, Mr Renzi will resign. “I can’t think of anyone who could replace him,” she says. 

But her fellow student Umberto Platini, 24, is determined to vote no and argues that political uncertainty would be par for the course in Italy. “Do we seriously think a government crisis will destabilise the system?” says Mr Platini.

Inside a student bar in piazza Verdi, however, there are some signs of hope for Mr Renzi. Ilaria De Simone, a 21-year-old cramming ahead of an economics exam with a friend, could still be persuaded. “I don’t hold Renzi in very high esteem but we do need faster laws and Italy would become a more modern country,” she adds.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.

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