Italians are about to take part in an historic referendum to shake up its parliament with plans to reduce  the number of MPs in the Chamber of Deputies from 630 to 400 and the number of Senators from 315 to 200.

The latest polls show that over two in three Italians intends to vote “Sì” when the vote takes place on September 20 and 21st, a striking contrast to the rejected reform proposals that led to the resignation of Premier Matteo Renzi back in 2016. Over the same Sunday and Monday, Italians are also voting for the presidency of seven regions, new mayors for 1,100 municipalities and two Senate by-elections.

The arguments for the referendum vote on both sides are to some extent echoes of the 2016 vote, as part of Renzi’s proposed reforms involved a reduction of Parliamentary seats alongside a host of other changes. The key difference now is that the main party of government, the Five Star Movement (M5s), is a relative newcomer to the political scene that has tried to distance itself from Renzi’s centre-left Democratic Party (Pd), which was previously in power.

To a certain extent, as academic Iacopo Mugnai has put it, the way that Renzi portrayed his reform as an anti-populist measure was part of why it failed. Following the 2008 financial crisis, Italy’s political establishment faced hostility from disenchanted voters. The phrase “Renzisconi” was picked up as a catch-all description of how the country’s two dominant political figures, Renzi and former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, were simply two sides of the same political class in the eyes of many.

In other words, people were tired of the traditional centre-left and centre-right movements. In 2016, many Italians struggled to get behind constitutional reform proposals put forward by an establishment which very few found inspiring or trustworthy, and this distrust was compounded in the emergence of the populist M5s and the right-wing Lega as victors in the 2018 national elections.

These discussions run deep into the country’s national past. They are couched in the historical difference between “real” and “legal” Italy. That’s to say, ever since the country’s unification in 1861 there has been a widespread perception that the country is ruled by a distinct political class that is removed from the people, such that there has traditionally been little sense of loyalty towards the idea of Italy as a nation-state (with the glaring exception of the Fascist era).

In the first fifty years of the newly unified Italy from 1870, politicians such as Francesco Crispi and Giovanni Giolitti developed a reputation for being slippery and unscrupulous, changing their ideals freely for the sake of maintaining a stable, liberal State. This changing of political guise became known as “trasformismo”, a word which, incidentally, has been bandied about in the run-up to this year’s vote.

Marco Ferrando, leader of the Workers’ Communist Party, has described the leaders of the Five Star Movement as indulging in “trasformismo”. He argues that the once fiercely anti-establishment, populist voice of the M5s is now proposing similar reforms to those attempted by the Pd, and joining the very establishment from which it once sought to distinguish itself.

Populism is called out as bogeyman on both sides of the referendum campaign, however. While Ferrando calls the cutting of seats another exercise in “anti-politics”, fellow left-wing commentator Pierfranco Pellizetti believes that such characterisations confuse genuine reform of the political system with hysterical fears of populist politics. It has been observed that fringe parties and movements appear to be the main detractors of the reforms, perhaps out of fear that their representation will be eroded further by the lower seat numbers. This may also explain Ferrando’s hesitation.

The major parties themselves are also split over the issue, including the Pd, the party of former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. As a party in the governing coalition, many Pd deputies feel it is their duty to support the measure. Yet the fact that the measures are backed by the Lega and the nationalist Fratelli d’Italia party make the move more unpalatable for other members. This is the case for Lazio deputy Matteo Orfini, who has accused the Pd of “lacking the courage to be radically different from the right”.

Having said this, voters on the right are hardly more united on the issue, with 55% of Forza Italia and Lega’s voting base in favour of “Sì”. This makes assumptions that this referendum is a straightforward case of “no as progressive, yes as populist” rather simplistic and reductive.

What are the main reasons for reducing seats in the first place? Attention has been paid to the potential saving of €100 million a year, although this has been called into question, with some saying that the figure will reflect gross, not net savings. Some believe fewer parliamentarians means greater efficiency and decision-making capacity. This argument has been years in the making, since modern Italy has been dogged by short-lived governments and seemingly weak coalitions between disparate parties. Such a set up makes any step towards a less time-consuming legislative process highly appealing.

Yet many, such as the anti-populist “Sardines” movement, take issue with this logic. The Sardines started out as a flash mob in Bologna but they have since become one of the beacons of protest against the rising tide of the anti-immigrant right in Italy.

According to the movement, the problem of Italian politics is not a “surplus” of parliamentarians but the “quality of debate and the governing class”. From their perspective, it is a qualitative problem, not a quantitative one – simply cutting the numbers won’t change the substance. If Parliament is the voice of the democratic will of the people, they say, then a reduced number of representatives will necessarily mean less representation and a reduced capacity for democratic pluralism.

One final reason for voting “sì”, which cannot be underestimated, is the desire to give a bloody nose to the political establishment by reducing its numbers, even if that means voting alongside some of its most prominent voices.

Taken alone, the referendum may seem an insignificant gesture – a world away from, say, the UK’s 2016 EU referendum – but a positive result could act as a springboard for greater Constitutional changes following the regional elections also scheduled this month. Matteo Salvini, head of the Lega, admitted as much in a recent interview, saying that the measure would be “incomplete” without broader “presidentialist” reforms.

This is what the opposition fears: the reduction in seats will achieve little, but there is uncertainty as to what it could pave the way for. Italians are likely to approve this particular measure, but its broader consequences will not be understood for some time.

Patrick Graney is a freelance journalist with an interest in Italian culture and politics.