Is Matteo Renzi set to be the next casualty of the right-wing populist insurgency?

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Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.

 

First David Cameron was forced to resign as Prime Minister after losing the EU Referendum, then Hillary Clinton was beaten to the Presidency by Donald Trump, now it looks as though Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi could be the next centrist political leader to be felled by the populist insurgency which has infiltrated world politics.

On 4 December, Italy will hold a constitutional referendum concerning the powers of the Parliament and the Prime Minister. Renzi believes that the Italian political system is not fit for purpose and he has grown increasingly frustrated by the slow pace at which legislation is made. Therefore, he has come up with a plan to streamline the system which he is putting to the people in next months referendum.

Italy currently has a bicameral legislature which is comprised of a lower house called the Chamber of Deputies which has 630 seats, and an upper house called the Senate of the Republic which has 315 elected members. The Italian system if often described as being perfectly symmetrical because both houses are elected at the same time and both are elected for a five year term. For legislation to pass into law the final version of every bill must pass through both houses, which is a key reason for the slow passage of legislation.

Renzi plans to reduce the Senate to 100 members (plus the ex-Presidents who are ‘Senators for life’), whilst the Senate would also cease to be directly elected. Instead, 95 Senators would be indirectly elected by the different regions in Italy, whilst the other five would be appointed by the Prime Minister. The changes proposed in the referendum also mean that some bills can be adopted unicamerally having only been approved by the Chamber of Deputies. Overall, the new constitutional provisions suggested in the referendum would curb the powers of the Senate (the source of much of the legislative gridlock) and increase the power of the Prime Minister, which is why it was no surprise that many of Renzi’s opponents described him as being ‘undemocratic’ or ‘authoritarian’ for trying to make these changes.

However, the content of the proposed constitutional changes is not really the issue here (in reality, the new constitutional provisions are pretty dry).

Renzi has been Italian Prime Minister for two years now and is already relatively unpopular amongst the electorate. Following recent events like the UK voting to leave the European Union and the United States electing Donald Trump to the Presidency, Italy’s populists are now sufficiently emboldened to believe that this referendum gives them the opportunity to unseat Renzi.

Indeed, Renzi himself has stated that if he is to lose the referendum then he will resign as Prime Minister. This was a big mistake. What it means is that the constitutional referendum has instead been turned into a referendum on Renzi’s leadership, which his opponents believe they can comfortably win.

The key opponents of the reform proposed by Renzi are the syncretic populist Five Star Movement, which is headed by former comedian Beppe Grillo; the far-right Northern League (or Lega Nord); and Forza Italia, the party of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. These groups have seen that the referendum is an opportunity to unseat the centrist Renzi, and have been travelling around the country whipping up support for their cause.

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Former comedian Beppe Grillo, the founder of the Italian Five Star Movement. 

By calling the referendum, Renzi believed that he had tapped into the desire of Italians to see the political system changed and made more streamlined. However, although he was correct that this was an idea that was popular amongst Italians, he didn’t realise that it wasn’t their top priority. For most Italians their priority was seeing a return to economic growth and a thriving economy, and the end to the unpopular bailouts of Italy’s weak banks which have usually been supported by Renzi. Many Italians blame Renzi for their dire economic situations and as a result feel that unseating him is more important than enacting constitutional change.

Currently, opinion polls suggest that Renzi is on course for a loss in the upcoming referendum with the ‘No’ campaign’s advantage estimated at between five and seven points. This does though exclude undecided voters which could be as much as 26 percent of the electorate.

As it stands though, it looks as though Renzi is set to lose the referendum, and as a result will be forced to resign as Prime Minister. This could lead to Beppe Grillo’s populist Five Star Movement sweeping into power. Given the Five Star Movement’s Euroscepticism, if they were to ascend to power then we could well see another referendum but this time one which concerned Italy’s membership of the European Union.

There is of course the chance that Renzi wins. In recent days Renzi has taken a leaf out of Donald Trump’s book by describing Italian politics as a ‘swamp’ (perhaps a reference to Trump’s popular pledge to ‘drain the swamp’ of Washington D.C.), with Renzi saying that the only way to improve this would be to vote ‘Yes’ in the referendum.

However, it remains to be seen whether Renzi has done enough to survive. Given the way world politics seems to be moving toward a populist and anti-establishment viewpoint, don’t be surprised if Renzi is defeated and is subsequently forced out of power.

Although most people have been looking at next year’s Presidential Election in France, and Federal Elections in Germany as the next chance of populist politicians to have success, this referendum in Italy gives them a chance sooner than many expected. Currently, it looks as though the populists will succeed in forcing out another centrist administration, and that the populist takeover of world politics will continue.

Does Donald Trump’s victory make a Marine Le Pen victory in next year’s French Presidential Election more likely?

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Donald Trump’s victory has excited right-wing populists all over the world. 

Since Donald Trump’s victory in the United States Presidential Election last week, there has been all sorts of talk about how his win bolsters the hope of the populist right-wing insurgencies which are finding favour all around the world — but in particular, in Europe.

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Leader of the Front National, Marine Le Pen. 

 

One of those populist right-wing insurgencies has been Marine Le Pen and her party the Front National (or National Front). Le Pen will stand for the Presidency of France in next years Presidential Election, and many think that she has a decent chance of winning. In the French regional elections held in December 2015, the Front National won 27.73 percent of the vote, higher than the centre-right Republican Party who got 26.65 percent, and the centre-left Socialist Party (to whom current President Francois Hollande belongs) who got 23.12 percent. In addition, Le Pen is currently riding high in the polls, with most polling giving her the support of around 26–29 percent of voters, which would probably be just about enough to finish in first place in the first round of voting. Even though Le Pen was already doing well in the polls, many have suggested that the election of Donald Trump last week means that the election of Marine Le Pen to the French Presidency in May next year is now very likely indeed.

Le Pen herself has taken heart from Trump’s win, telling the BBC in an interview this weekend that Trump’s win had, “made possible what had previously been presented as impossible,” with the suggestion that Trump’s win boded well for her chances next May. This was echoed by Nigel Farage who said of Trump’s victory: “I don’t think it’s finished yet, I think this phenomenon is set to sweep other parts of Europe over the course of a couple of years.”

Indeed, before Trump’s win last week it did seem ridiculous that Le Pen would have any chance of winning the Presidency, and I for one would have dismissed out of hand the possibility of a Le Pen victory. However, the election of Trump has made myself, and many others, sit up and take notice.

There are a lot of similarities between Trump and Le Pen, except of course the fact that Le Pen is a career politician whereas Trump’s run for the Presidency was his first proper entry into the political arena (I am not going to count Trump’s abortive run for the Reform Party’s nomination in the 2000 Presidential Election). Both Trump and Le Pen cast themselves as anti-establishment political outsiders, and look to appeal to those voters who consider themselves forgotten by the political elite. In the Presidential Election, Trump had great success in targeting the white working-class who felt left behind by globalisation, and Le Pen has looked to do the same. When you look beneath the surface of the opinion polling, you find that almost fifty percent of blue collar workers are planning to vote for Le Pen, whilst the same is true of around 40 percent of the French unemployed.

Le Pen’s voters share many of the same characteristics of those who voted for Donald Trump and those in the UK who voted to leave the European Union. Typically, Le Pen voters are working on low wages, have relatively low levels of education, and don’t live in big cities — much the same as many of those who voted for Trump, whereby Trump’s strong support in rural areas of swing states counteracted strong support for Hillary Clinton is places like Detroit and Philadelphia. Many have suggested that given the similar demographics of Le Pen’s supports when compared to those who supported Donald Trump and Brexit means that the likelihood of Le Pen becoming President is quite high.

However, the electoral system used for electing the French President must be considered. In France, the Presidential Election comprises two rounds of voting. In the first round, a multitude of candidates runs. If any one of these candidates wins more than fifty percent of the vote, then they are elected President straightaway. However, if no one wins more than fifty percent, then the top two candidates progress to a second round of voting, where voters vote again to choose the President.

Given the polling, it seems almost certain that Le Pen will reach the second round, given that she looks to have the support of around 28 percent of the electorate. Her likely opponent will be the candidate chosen by the centre-right Republicans Party, which at the moment looks like being Alain Juppe; however, having said this, former President Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Fillon are still very much in the running for the Republican nomination. The reason that Le Pen will likely be facing the nominee of the Republicans is because the current President, Francois Hollande of the Socialist Party, is deeply unpopular. Hollande’s approval rating is the worst of any President of the French Fifth Republic thus far, and opinion polls suggest that were Hollande to run for a second term, then he would be defeated in the first round of voting. Of course, we do not know whether Hollande will run. There is a fairly good chance that given his low approval ratings mean that winning is near impossible, that he will stand aside and allow another member of the Socialist Party to run, perhaps Prime Minister Manuel Valls. In addition, there is the potential independent candidacy of centrist former Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron to consider. Macron is yet to officially announce his candidacy (although it has been reported that he will announce tomorrow) but he is already polling at fourteen percent, given that he hasn’t announced his candidacy as of yet he has low name recognition. However, once he is campaigning, he also has a decent chance of making the second round.

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Embattled current President Francois Hollande. 

 

However, there is one certainty, and that is that Marine Le Pen will have enough support to reach the second round. Overall, I would predict that her most likely opponent would be Alain Juppe of the Republicans.

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Alain Juppe, Le Pen’s likely opponent in the second round of voting. 

So, could Le Pen win the Presidency.

Although Le Pen is leading in the polls, winning the Presidency remains unlikely. The French electoral system of two rounds of voting means that in the second round the anti-Le Pen vote won’t be split. In the regional elections of December 2015, the Front National received the highest share of the vote but didn’t gain control of any regions. This is because the Republicans and Socialists combined the ensure that the Front National were unable to win. The Presidential Election would likely result in a similar situation. Whoever gets into the second round head-to-head against Le Pen, would be supported by almost the entire political establishment, which would make it near impossible for Le Pen to win.

Therefore, I think that ultimately the likelihood of Le Pen continuing the trend of the populist right-wing winning elections is rather unlikely.

But, given what this year in politics has been like, I wouldn’t bet against it.

Is Emmanuel Macron really the saviour of France?

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Photo: Ed Alcock / M.Y.O.P

Last Tuesday Emmanuel Macron resigned from his position as the French Minister of the Economy, Industry and Digital Affairs, a move clearly made with the aim of making a run for the Presidency.

Macron has long been touted as a future French President, perhaps the last hope of the French centre-left in an election which current President François Hollande (if he chooses to run) looks certain to lose. Hollande’s extreme unpopularity is seen as having tainted the Socialist Party in the eyes of the French electorate, which would suggest that Macron’s association with the Hollande administration (he has been a Presidential advisor or Government Minister since 2012) would make a run for the Presidency difficult.

However, Macron has always been seen as being somewhat independent from Hollande and the Socialist Party as a whole. Although Macron was a member of the Socialist Party between 2006 and 2009, he is currently an independent — although he has set up a centrist movement known as ‘En Marche’, ostensibly not as a political party but as a way of fostering new centrist ideas. Although it seems as though this move was really a way of testing the waters in advance of a potential Presidential run, as was always suspected.

One of the things that gives Macron more of a chance of securing the French Presidency than incumbent Hollande, is that he is seen as being a pro-business. Somewhat predictably, Macron previously worked as an investment banker, something that centre-left politicians around the world seem to consider necessary in order to prove their pro-business credentials.

But Macron has already proved that he backs serious reform of the French economy, something that those on the left in France have often been accused of working against. In recent years Macron has attacked areas such as France’s 35-hour working week and large public sector — both seen as sacrosanct by the left. This has made him unpopular with many in the Socialist Party but has succeeded in burnishing his image as someone who could put an end to France’s economic travails.

But, although his expertise on the economy will prove beneficial to Macron’s candidacy, next year’s election is likely to be one which is fought primarily on the issues of terrorism and security. These are issues on which Macron is likely to lack gravitas when compared to his potential opponents in the upcoming Presidential race, most of whom have held high-level elected office before.

This is something else which distinguishes Macron from his opponents, he has never been elected. He worked as an advisor on Hollande’s 2012 Presidential campaign, and an economic advisor to Hollande as President, before being appointed as a Government Minister. But given that he was never elected, he was effectively working as a Civil Servant. If he were to be elected to the Presidency despite having never held elected office before, then this would be astonishing.

What’s more, as mentioned earlier, Macron is not currently a member of any political party. Although this could be seen as being beneficial in terms of detaching him from the perceived failures of the current Socialist Government, the negative is that it denies him any sort of party machine to aid him in winning the Presidency. This may make it extremely difficult to gain any sort of traction in the Presidential election. However, Macron has been busy recruiting an army of around 16,000 volunteers, mostly young people, who spend time door-knocking in an attempt to build the base of support that Macron lacks. They hope that this hard work can propel him to the Presidency.

But ultimately, the 2017 Presidential Election may prove to be too soon for Macron to win. Although he is currently the second most popular politician in France (after only Alain Juppé) it is hard to see him maintaining his position once the main parties unify (or at least attempt to unify) following the conclusion of their primary campaigns.

Given his inexperience and lack of a political party he doesn’t really have the base of support which is often said to be necessary for success in Presidential elections (although Donald Trump has proved in the United States that Presidential candidates can gain momentum without the help of the party machine). What’s more, his inexperience in terms of national security issues may make it hard for him to adequately respond to the types of questions that could be asked of him during the Presidential campaign.

However, although it is hard to see Macron winning the Presidency next year, taking part in the campaign (either as a candidate or a commentator of sorts) could boost his profile and put him on the right track to winning the Presidency in 2022. Whatever happens in next year’s election, expect Emmanuel Macron to be one of the most important figures in European politics in the years to come.

Is the field for the 2017 French Presidential Election shaping up to be the lowest calibre ever?

If you think that choosing between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton was a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea, then spare a thought for French voters, given the choice of candidates in their upcoming Presidential election.

Although ten parties have already announced that they will be fielding candidates in the election, there are really only three parties who stand any chance of winning the presidency. These are: The Republicans, the Socialist Party, and the National Front. Currently, only the National Front have selected their candidate for the Presidency, with The Republicans and the Socialist Party set to hold open primaries in due course to decide upon their candidates.

The National Front’s candidate for the Presidency is party leader Marine Le Pen, and the policy positions that she has advocated throughout her career reflect the worst of populist politics. In the past, Le Pen has advocated a complete moratorium on legal immigration, ostensibly as a solution to unemployment, as well as a crackdown on illegal immigration. She has pledged to restore French relations with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whilst cutting off relations with Turkey who she has accused of supporting terrorism. In addition, similarly to Donald Trump, Le Pen has advocated improved relations with Russia, and has suggested that Russia’s actions in Ukraine were misunderstood. Naturally (for populist politicians at least), Le Pen also wants to leave the Eurozone, leave the European Union, and have a referendum on the reinstatement of capital punishment. Perhaps most well-known of Le Pen’s policy pronouncements, is her pledge for a crackdown on Islam. Le Pen’s repeated pronouncements of the links between Immigration, Islam, and Terrorism, have rapidly gained support in a country where many are terrified after recent terror attacks, and are looking for someone to blame. Le Pen has dangerously used these attacks for political point scoring with the result that she now leads Presidential election opinion polls. However, with the French electoral system, which includes a run-off between the top performing candidates from the first round of voting (assuming no candidate gains 50 percent of the vote in the first round) it looks as though Le Pen could be defeated by whoever she faces in the run-off. Nonetheless, Le Pen’s recent success and popularity showcases the dangerous forward march of the populist right in Europe and around the world.

As for The Republicans, fourteen candidates have thrown their hats into the ring thus far, and more are set to follow (making the French Republican primary much like the American Republican primary). These declared candidates include: former Prime Ministers François Fillon and Alain Juppé, and former President Nicolas Sarkozy. Fillon was Prime Minister under Nicolas Sarkozy, and has spent recent years being one of the strongest critics of President Hollande’s economic policy, as well as his policy of intervention in Syria. In 2015, Fillon accused Hollande of presiding over the ‘pauperisation’ of France, whilst during his time as Minister for Education he was strongly in favour of restricting the wearing of ‘religious signs’ in public. However, with Fillon polling only around 10–12% it seems unlikely that he can challenge Juppé and Sarkozy who are the clear frontrunners. Juppé was Prime Minister between 1995 and 1997, and is the current Mayor of Bordeaux. He could comfortably be described as a moderate centre-right politician, perhaps one of the few voices of reason in the Republican primary. However, he is well-known as a poor public speaker, without the ability to fire up rallies in the way that the populist right have done so successfully, which could hurt him as the race goes on. Despite this, Juppé is currently ahead in the polls by around ten percent.

However, standing between Juppé and the Presidential nomination of the Republican Party is former President Nicolas Sarkozy. Since losing the Presidency to François Hollande in 2012, Sarkozy has looked to rebuild his career. When he hasn’t been pretending to be brilliant at cycling up mountains, he has reinvented himself in the style of Donald Trump, as a populist right-winger hoping that the rising tide of anger in France can propel him to the Presidency. Sarkozy has described France as being on the ‘edge of an abyss’, which is very similar language to that used by Donald Trump in his speech at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in June. Sarkozy has pledged to follow a hardline stance on immigration, and has been one of the most vocal supporters of banning the Burkini throughout France. In addition, he plans to re-establish the authority of the State, and introduce compulsory military service for those who are not employed or in full-time education at the age of eighteen. It has been clear throughout the campaign that Sarkozy and his advisers feel that the National Front is the main competition in the upcoming election, and that a campaign filled with populist rhetoric is the way forward.

He is probably right. Given the unpopularity of the current President François Hollande, it doesn’t look like the Socialist Party have any chance of retaining the presidency. In 2012, Sarkozy became the first French President since 1981 not to win a second term in office. But it is looking increasingly likely that Hollande will follow suit. Hollande is now the most unpopular President in recent French history, and recent polls have suggested that around ninety percent of the French electorate disapprove of his performance as President. Many French voters feel that Hollande’s handling of the recent terror attacks on French soil has left a lot to be desired, whilst rising unemployment has also heavily contributed to Hollande’s unpopularity. Polling suggests that were Hollande to run for a second term as President, he would be defeated in the first round of the election. Hollande’s potential run for a second term is further complicated by deep divisions within his own party. Several ministers have resigned from the Hollande Government in order to run against him in the upcoming Presidential primary. These ministers include Arnaud Montebourg who was Minister for Industrial Renewal from 2012–14. Montebourg has accused Hollande of a betrayal of the ‘ideals of the left’ following Hollande’s adoption of a more pro-business stance in recent months, with Montebourg running as a firebrand left-wing candidate and promising to bring an end to austerity in France. Another individual who could complicate things for Hollande is Emmanuel Macron, who recently resigned as Economy Minister in order to begin a centrist bid for the Presidency. Macron has never held elected office but has been gaining popularity in recent months. Given the unpopularity of the Socialist Party (which stems from Hollande’s personal unpopularity), Macron is perhaps the only chance the left have of retaining the Presidency. Throughout his time in politics he has successfully distanced himself from the Socialist Party, painting himself as an independent centrist. Ironically, he may now be their only hope.

Therefore, with Hollande looking like he stands no chance of retaining the Presidency, and with it looking like the Socialist Party stand no chance of making the Presidential run-off, it looks as though the French Presidential Election is set to degenerate into a slugging match between members of the populist right. Don’t be surprised if the the two candidates who end up fighting it out for the Presidency are Marine Le Pen and Nicolas Sarkozy, who will compete throughout the election with scary pronouncements for France’s future and strongly worded rhetoric regarding immigration and Islam.

Ultimately, with the current leader in the opinion polls (Marine Le Pen) someone who has previously been on trial charged with anti-Muslim hate speech, and the two most unpopular Presidents in recent French history (Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande) leading the way in the upcoming election, the 2017 French Presidential Election does look set to be one of the lowest calibre elections of modern times, not just in France but in the world.

What does Austria’s Presidential Election mean for Europe?

The Austrian Presidency has just been won by Alexander Van der Bellen, a pro-eu independent and former leader of the Green Party. Mr Van der Bellen narrowly prevented the Austrian Freedom Party’s Norbert Hofer from becoming the European Union’s first far-right head of state. Is this the peak of support for far-right politicians in Europe, or just the beginning?

This election has served once again to illustrate the deep divisions which exist in Europe, as well as the worldwide surge in support for anti-establishment political figures.

The primary cause of this disenchantment with traditional politicians has been the migrant crisis, and well as the lingering effect of the great recession. These issues mean that politicians who advocate strong controls on immigration, are opposed the the euro, and are opposed to further integration are now more socially acceptable than they have ever been before.

Taking Austria as just one example: Norbert Hofer and the Freedom Party of Austria won 35.1% of the first round votes in the Presidential election; whilst they went on to gain a total of 49.7% of the vote in the run-off election. In the previous Presidential election in 2010, the Freedom Party of Austria won just 15.24% of the vote. To increase your share of the vote by this extent is almost unheard of in modern European politics.

Nobert Hofer (right), who almost became Austrian President (Photo: Ronald Zak/AP).

The popularity of the Freedom Party of Austria is the latest in a trend of far-right candidates gaining momentum in elections across Europe. In December 2015, the Front National won 6.8m votes in French Regional Elections on a turnout of just 58.4%. In the 2012 French Presidential Election, turnout was 79.5%, suggesting that the Front National would be in line to gain a significantly higher number of votes in the 2017 Presidential Election. Indeed current polling has Front National leader Marine Le Pen consistently gaining around 27–31% support. This is significantly higher than the support shown for establishment politicians such as Francois Hollander, Nicolas Sarkozy, and Alain Juppe. It is indisputable that the Front National will reach the second round of voting in the 2017 Presidential Election. Indeed the Front National only failed to take control of any regions in the December 2015 elections as a result of tactical voting between The Socialists and The Republicans. It may well be the case that further tactical voting is required in order to prevent a Le Pen Presidency come 2017.

The rise of the far-right movement in France is also mirrored in the Netherlands where Geert Wilders Party of Freedom (PVV) currently leads opinion polls in advance of next year’s general election. In Denmark, the Danish People’s Party (DPP) came second in last year’s general election, winning 21% of the vote; whilst the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) won the October 2015 Swiss parliamentary election with 29.4% of the vote. In addition, the rise of Golden Dawn in Greece; Jobbik in Hungary; and, the Alternative for Germany; shows that mainstream politicians should be increasingly worried about the popularity of the far-right.

However, it is debatable whether it is truly the popularity of the far-right as an ideology that is driving the popularity of these movements. Of course, anger over the great recession and the migrant crisis has played its part; however in actual fact it seems likely that the main reason is the disenchantment felt by many voters towards traditional political parties.

For example, in the United States, polling by Gallup in April found that 79% of respondents disapproved with the way Congress is handling its job. In the United States this dissatisfaction has manifested itself in the surge in popularity for anti-establishment Presidential candidates Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. The surge in popularity for Bernie Sanders suggests that it is not simply the far-right that is gaining traction, but in fact all political parties who can be considered to be anti-establishment. In this regard it is worth remembering that the ultimate winner of the Austrian Presidential Election was previously the leader of the Green Party. In the 2010 Austrian Presidential Election, the Green Party did not even field a candidate, choosing instead to endorse incumbent Heinz Fischer the candidate of the Social Democratic Party of Austria.

In conclusion, the Austrian Presidential Election serves to further illustrate the disenchantment of voters with traditional politics. Those who voted for Alexander Van der Bellen in order to prevent Norbert Hofer seizing victory should be applauded. Let us hope that a coalition of support from the centre-left and centre-right can also prevent Marine Le Pen from winning the French Presidency next year.

Moderate politicians from around the world must not dismiss these results out of hand. They must do more in order to retain support or they will find that anti-establishment candidates truly become the norm in elections in the United States and Western Europe.