The ‘No’ vote in the Italian referendum wasn’t a populist revolt in the style of Trump.

Matteo Renzi, who lost his attempt to reform Italy's stagnant political system.
Matteo Renzi, who lost his attempt to reform Italy’s stagnant political system.

Yesterday Italian voters went to the polls to vote in a referendum concerning the Italian political system and Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s attempts to end the gridlock which has plagued it for many years. Despite opinion polls prior to polling day suggesting that the result would be extremely close, the ‘No’ campaign won a decisive victory, with the reforms rejected by a margin of 59% to 41%, and Renzi subsequently set to tender his resignation later today. Following the result many were quick to place it in the same bracket as the result of UK’s EU Referendum, the election of Donald Trump as US President, and the rise of Marine Le Pen in France. In short, as another victory for anti-establishment populists, and part of a growing trend across the world.

However, this analysis is deeply flawed, and far too simplistic. Whilst anti-establishment feeling was certainly a factor in the result, it was by no means the most important factor, and it is very difficult to equate this result with the likes of the EU Referendum and the US Presidential Election.

Rather than a populist revolt, the referendum result was simply a vote against Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.

During the referendum campaign, Renzi (who at that point figured that he had a pretty good chance of winning) announced that were he to lose the referendum then he would resign as Prime Minister. After this statement, Italy’s opposition parties united somewhat in an attempt to unseat Renzi.

This ‘rag bag’ group (as Renzi himself termed it) included the populist left-leaning Five Star Movement led by comedian Beppe Grillo, the far-right Northern League, and the centre-right Forza Italia, led by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. In addition, some members of Renzi’s Democratic Party campaigned against the reforms, with the Democratic Party being such a ‘big tent’ party that there were many who weren’t particularly enamoured with Renzi’s leadership.

The most interesting case is that of Silvio Berlusconi. In 2006 Berlusconi himself, then serving as Prime Minister, attempted constitutional reform. Similarly to yesterday’s referendum, the 2006 referendum aimed to streamline the Italian political system by giving more power to the Prime Minister. Berlusconi’s reform was defeated at the ballot box by 61.3% — 38.7%, incidentally a larger defeat that Renzi’s was yesterday. But what this proves is that Berlusconi himself has himself been strongly in favour of reform in the past, but his reasons for campaigning against this reform rested more on a desire to remove Renzi as Prime Minister than anything else.

Realistically, although in this referendum voters have overwhelmingly backed the side supported by the populist parties the Five Star Movement and the Northern League, this is no guarantee that an actual election would go the same way. It was no surprise that following the referendum, the centre-right party, Forza Italia, said that they didn’t believe an election should be called, and that they though that the next Prime Minister should come from Renzi’s Democratic Party. The truth is that there is no way that the likes of the Five Star Movement, Northern League, and Forza Italia would be able to work together in Government, and therefore they would not have been able to combine to defeat Renzi in an actual election. However, when Renzi turned the referendum into a confidence vote on his leadership, he enabled an alliance between all opposition parties, and his fate was settled. At a time when Renzi’s popularity was hardly through the roof, in large part because of Italy’s economic woes, it was undeniably stupid for Renzi to stake his future on the referendum.

In addition, it is incorrect that the referendum was purely an expression of anti-establishment feeling. Yes, the anti-establishment Five Star Movement were one of the main opponents of the constitutional reform, and as a result anti-establishment feeling certainly played a part, however it was not as significant as many have claimed. For a start, look at how many members of the supposed ‘establishment’ supported the campaign against the proposed reforms. Silvio Berlusconi and his establishment centre-right party, Forza Italia, have already been mentioned, but there was also former Prime Minister Mario Monti as well as a fair few senior members of Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party. Although the establishment Five Star Movement were prominent during the campaign, it was not a campaign where it was simply establishment versus anti-establishment — as was the case during the US Presidential Campaign. The sheer number of establishment figures on the ‘No’ side suitably demonstrates this. In addition, it must be remembered that Renzi himself was never really considered a particularly establishment figure. He came to power as Prime Minister from the relatively obscure position of Mayor of Florence, and he has taken on a somewhat anti-establishment persona during his time as Prime Minister (with a vision of a government which could wipe out the corruption which had plagued Italian politics for decades), particularly during this referendum campaign. He alluded to Donald Trump’s ‘drain the swamp’ rhetoric during the campaign when he described the Italian political system as a ‘swamp’ where he would be unable to remain if he didn’t pass the proposed reforms. Given the dramatic change that Renzi wanted the Italian political system to undergo, it is perhaps more apt to describe him as anti-establishment than his opponents during the referendum.

No, rather than a vote against the establishment, this was a vote against Renzi himself. Although he came to power with promises of constitutional change, he also promised an end to the economic malaise that has afflicted Italy for many years. The referendum result is more to do with Italy’s continuing economic difficulties than anything else. Renzi perhaps overestimated Italy’s desire for constitutional change ahead of economic progress, and sorely paid the price. For most Italians, rather than constitutional change their priorities were seeing a return to a thriving economy and economic growth, and the end to the unpopular bailouts of big banks. Renzi’s failure to deliver in these areas made him considerably unpopular and so when he staked his future on the referendum result, the voters saw their chance.

Add to this the complex nature of the reform, very few people understood exactly what it was that was being asked, and there were even reports that start-ups were charging $150 an hour for classes explaining the referendum question. Contrary to what is often claimed, most who vote are not keen to vote in favour of something they don’t fully understand. With the complex nature of the constitutional reform, is was unsurprising that most were keener to keep the status quo, because at least then they know exactly where they stand.

Rather than a vote for anti-establishment politics, this was a vote against Renzi, pure and simple. Although Renzi has arguably done some good things, he doesn’t seem to have done enough to gain the continued confidence of the Italian people, although his statement yesterday suggests that he does not intend to retire from politics and could yet seek to return as Prime Minister in the near future. Although Renzi served as Prime Minister for under three years, he is still the fourth-longest serving PM in almost thirty years, which tells you basically all you need to know about Italy’s infamously volatile politics. Bearing this in mind, a political return for Renzi in the future is by no means out of the question, and in fact it would not be at all surprising.

With a friend in the White House, will Putin soon have a friend in the Elysee Palace too?

President of Russia, Vladimir Putin

When Donald Trump was elected as President of the United States earlier this month, the media was quite rightly full of stories of how this may affect the relationship between the United States and Russia, given that Trump had made several statements over the course of the campaign which suggested that he was in favour of a very different relationship with Russia and Russian President Vladimir Putin than his predecessors had pursued. Trump regularly praised Putin during the campaigning describing him as more of a leader than President Obama, and praising his “very strong control” over Russia. Following the election result, many in the Kremlin were understandably very pleased as Trump had seemingly been their favoured candidate over the course of the election process. Many in the Russian Government will likely feel that the election of Trump will have given them more scope to carry out the type of expansionist policy which they have pursued in the likes of Ukraine, and which has been opposed by Nato up to now. 

President-elect Donald Trump was very pro-Russia throughout the Presidential campaign.

Whilst it seems that Russia now have a friend in the White House in Donald Trump, it seems as though they may well soon have a friend in the Elysee Palace as well following the 2017 French Presidential Election.

The current frontrunners for the French Presidency (and the two candidates expected to progress from the first round into the run-off) are Marine Le Pen of the National Front and Francois Fillon, who is expected to wrap up the Republican nomination this weekend. In the past, both have made very positive statements with regard to Russia, in much the same way which Trump did throughout the US election campaign. 

Le Pen’s longstanding pro-Russia views are well known and have been well documented, but she built on that last week by describing how the trio of Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, and herself as world leaders “would be good for world peace”; whilst it is also known that the National Front has accepted loans from Russian-backed banks in order to finance their election campaigns. 

Marine Le Pen’s pro-Russia views have been well documented.

However, her likely opponent in the final round of the Presidential Election Francois Fillon has also espoused very pro-Russia views in the recent past, although these have been less publicised than Le Pen’s.

Francois Fillon has also been known to be pro-Russian and has a close relationship with Putin.

Between 2007 and 2012, Fillon served as Prime Minister of France under the Presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy (one of the candidates vanquished by Fillon and Alain Juppe in the first round of the Republican Presidential Primary last weekend). During this time he overlapped with Vladimir Putin who served as Prime Minister of Russia between 2008 and 2012, under the Presidency of Dmitry Medvedev. Following Donald Trump’s election to the US Presidency, Fillon was asked if he was at all worried about the possibility of impending close relations between the United States and Russia, he said he was not, saying: “I don’t only not worry about it, I wish for it.” Fillon has argued that all the sanctions levied against Russia following the invasion of Ukraine should be lifted, whilst he has also backed a coalition between Western countries and Russia, along with Bashar al-Assad, to defeat ISIS in Syria. On Tuesday, following Fillon’s unexpectedly strong showing in Sunday’s primary, the Kremlin described Putin as having “rather good relations” with Fillon. 

All this is worrying to many observers. With Le Pen and Fillon the overwhelming favourites to contest the final round of next year’s Presidential Election, it seems almost certain that Francois Hollande’s successor as French President will be sympathetic to Russia, and Russian expansionism. 

This adds to a growing trend across Europe of pro-Russian leaders winning power, or at least winning significant support. 

Viktor Orban, the populist Eurosceptic Prime Minister of Hungary has long favoured close ties with Russia, at least in terms of business; this led to Hungary agreeing a loan from the Kremlin believed to amount to €10.8 billion to finance the expansion of a nuclear power plant which supplies almost half of Hungary’s electricity. Previously the European Commission had sought to challenge the deal as they felt that it increased Hungary’s dependence on Russia, and would plunge Hungary into debt. 

Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban.

Another European leader who has sought to cultivate close relations with Putin is Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras who came to power as leader of the Syriza party in January 2015. Tsipras has looked to Russia for help with Greece’s economic travails and has described Russia as “Greece’s most important ally”. 

Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras.

There have also been signs that this pro-Russian sentiment is being echoed by others across Europe, in particular among some of the Eurosceptic political leaders who have come to the fore over the past couple of years, and who have recently been emboldened by the political shocks of Brexit and Trump being elected President. 

But, it is the development that France may soon have a President who is sympathetic to Putin along with the signs that the United States has one in Trump which will be most worrying to many other members of the international community. Most significant is the impact these countries have upon the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). The UNSC is made up of fifteen member States but of these fifteen, five are permanent members: the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China. Any of these permanent members have the power to block or veto a UN resolution. If the US and France were to begin offering support to Russia in the UN, then this would greatly increase Russia’s ability to act as they please in the international arena. 

Of course, although Trump espoused pro-Russian views during the election campaign, we do not know whether he will row back on this in the same way that he has on other issues, for example his pledge to appoint a Special Prosecutor for Hillary Clinton, which he has now confirmed that he won’t be taking any further. Indeed, it has been rumoured that both John Bolton and Mitt Romney are being considered for the role of Secretary of State. Both are known to be anti-Russia, and as such the Kremlin would likely be extremely unhappy if they were to be appointed. However, it does seem that Trump himself is keen for closer relations with Moscow. Similarly from what we can see that is the aim of both Le Pen and Fillon as well.

Trump could row back on his pro-Russia views by appointing Mitt Romney as Secretary of State.

Of course, it will be a while until we know anything for sure about how these recent political developments have changed international affairs in terms of Russia. But, on the face of it, it seems that the real political winner of 2016 politics so far, is Vladimir Putin and Russia. 

Can Emmanuel Macron win the French Presidency?

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Emmanuel Macron announces his candidacy for President of France on Wednesday. 

In French politics much of the news over the last few days has been of the centre-right party Les Republicains holding the first round of their presidential primary with former Prime Minister Francois Fillon emerging as the unexpected victor.

However, last Wednesday, a less well known politician announced his candidacy for the Presidency: Emmanuel Macron.

Until August, Macron was the Economy Minister in the Manuel Valls government under the Presidency of Francois Hollande. Macron was a member of the Socialist Party between 2006 and 2009 but since then he has been an independent, and has recently established a political movement called ‘En Marche!’ (the initials of which conveniently match his own).

It is under the banner of ‘En Marche!’ that he will run for the Presidency, although he is effectively running as an independent, given that he lacks the party machine which the candidates from the major parties will enjoy. Given the dire record of independent and third-party candidates in French Presidential Elections, one would be forgiven for thinking that Macron doesn’t stand a chance of winning the Presidency. However, although it will undoubtedly be difficult for Macron, he certainly has a fairly decent chance in the upcoming election.

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Macron in his previous role as Minister of the Economy, Industry and Digital Affairs.

 

Currently leading in the polls is Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front, with polling overwhelmingly suggesting that she will finish top in the first round of voting scheduled to be held on 23 April 2017. However, commentators have typically predicted that Le Pen will be defeated in the second round of voting, due to be held on 7 May.

Traditionally, French voters have a strong record of coming together to defeat extremist candidates for the Presidency. In 2002, Jean-Marie Le Pen (father of Marine) was the candidate for the National Front and advanced to the second round along with Jacques Chirac, the candidate for the UMP (the precursor of Les Republicains). In the second round of voting, the anti-Le Pen vote came together to give Chirac 82.2 percent of the votes and with it a huge victory. Many observers expect a similar situation to arise this time, although opinion is almost unanimous that the margin of victory for the consensus candidate will be far lower than in 2002, and that given the worldwide trend toward right-wing populist political candidates that it would be extremely unwise to completely rule out the possibility of Marine Le Pen winning the Presidency. However, the high likelihood of Le Pen’s opponent in the second round winning the Presidency means that, in theory, all Macron needs to do is win enough votes in the first round to advance into the second round.

One thing that could potentially make this easier is the fact that Francois Fillon has emerged as the likely winner of the presidential nomination for the Republicans. Previously, the overwhelming favourite to win was current Mayor of Bordeaux Alain Juppe who is considered a centrist. Given that Macron is also marketing himself as a centrist candidate in the election, Juppe as the Republican candidate could have made it very difficult for Macron to make any headway. The polls reflect this. So far in the Presidential race, and including the polls conducted before he announced his candidacy, Macron has been polling between 12 and 25 percent. Typically, his lower numbers have come when the pollsters have listed Alain Juppe as the Republican nominee. However, in polling which has listed Nicolas Sarkozy or Francois Fillon as the Republican nominee, Macron has tended to score considerably higher. Therefore, the emergence of Fillon as the likely Republican nominee could be of huge benefit to Macron. If Macron is able to hoover up some of the voters who would have backed Juppe in the first round of voting, then he would stand a pretty strong chance of getting enough support to advance to the second round. As I explained previously, this would give him a very good chance of winning the Presidency.

The other variable to consider is whether incumbent President Francois Hollande will run for a second term. It has been reported that many of the President’s confidantes have advised him against seeking a second term given that his exceedingly high unpopularity would likely render the result a foregone conclusion — Hollande’s approval rating recently dropped to an historic low of just four percent. Macron was a key advisor on the Hollande Presidential campaign in 2012, and although he has been accused by Alain Juppe, among others, of ‘stabbing Hollande in the back’, he remains somewhat associated with the Hollande Presidency. This relationship is reflected in the polling with Macron scoring higher ratings when current Prime Minister Manuel Valls is listed as the Socialist Party nominee rather than Hollande — suggesting that Macron would be able to bring Hollande backers into his camp as well as Juppe backers. This coalition of centre-left, centrist, and centre-right supporters would stand him in good stead, and it is currently looking as though Macron’s insistence that his movement ‘En Marche!’ should not outwardly subscribe to any particular political ideology is looking like a rather shrewd decision. Macron’s own experience allows him to successfully straddle these ideologies. His previous membership of the Socialist Party has won him the backing of some centre-left voters plus the endorsement of Socialist Party members such as the Mayor of Lyon, Gerard Collomb. In addition, his experience as a banker with Rothschild, and as Economy Minister means that he also has strong connections in various highly influential business networks, although this has led to him being dismissed by Marine Le Pen as ‘the candidate of the bankers’.

What it does mean is that he has the ability to court voters who would usually go with the establishment candidate, whilst his independence from any political party and the fact that he has never before held elected office before means that he can also attempt to gain some of the voters who are keen for an anti-establishment candidate, which his speech announcing his run for the Presidency reflected.

During his speech announcing his candidacy Macron described France as being ‘blocked by corporatism of all kinds’ and unequivocally stated, ‘I reject this system!’ Although Macron is an avowedly centrist candidate, this imagery of a political system which faces gridlock as a result of corporate interests is also one which was readily used by the Leave side during the EU Referendum, and by Donald Trump’s campaign for the Presidency, and although Macron is clearly not a populist in the mould of these campaign’s, he has certainly seen what works around the world and is attempting to use it to his advantage. Macron was also keen to stress that rather than advocating positions on the right or left, his En Marche! movement advocated ‘new ideas’, and therefore he has immediately looked to mark himself out as the ‘change’ candidate, something which has also proved extremely successful in recent elections worldwide. Indeed, exit polling following the US Presidential Election suggested that although many of Donald Trump’s actual policies didn’t find favour with the electorate, many voters backed him because they felt that he could bring about change in Washington D.C. that no other candidate, principally Hillary Clinton, could. By casting himself as the ‘change’ candidate, Macron clearly hopes to tap into the desire of voters to shake up the political system, and whilst similar to the Trump campaign for change, there are also uncanny similarities to Tony Blair’s campaign in 1997 when he was Leader of the Opposition and then became Prime Minister. It is no surprise that some have described Macron as being ‘more Blair than Blair’, with the likeness perhaps coming more from a seeming willingness to do whatever it takes to win as opposed to his centrism.

Although there is evidence that Macron is winning voters who backed Hollande in 2012, there has also been anger in the Socialist Party at his candidacy, with some senior members suggesting that all he would do would be to split the left and allow the far-right to take hold. Jean-Christophe Cambedelis, who as First Secretary of the Socialist Party is effectively the party leader, described Macron’s decision to run as “very annoying”, before lamenting that his candidacy would split the Socialist Party’s vote and make it almost impossible for a centre-left candidate to reach the run-off. However, with the Socialist Party so unpopular on the back of Francois Hollande’s stint as President, surely the likelihood of a Socialist Party candidate reaching the final two was slim at best even before Macron announced his decision to run? Indeed, it seems fair to say that Macron’s candidacy makes it more likely that we will see a centre-left candidate in the final two, given that he has the ability to draw the support of centrists and some on the centre-right. Back in August Macron was polled as being the second most popular politician in all of France, after only Alain Juppe. With Juppe unlikely to play much more of a part in this Presidential Race, out of the remaining candidates it will likely be Macron who is the most popular in the eyes of the voting public. Surely, on these grounds, he is a far better person to be carrying the standard for the centre and centre-left than someone like Hollande or Valls? The fact that Le Pen and Juppe went on the attack almost immediately after Macron’s announcement suggests that they too recognise his eminent electability.

Whilst it is undeniable that Macron’s road to the Presidency will be an extremely difficult one, it is a journey which is by no means impossible. All Macron needs to do is finish second in the first round of the voting and with it progress to the run-off vote where he would have a good chance of defeating Le Pen. Although it is hard to dispute that Francois Fillon remains the favourite for now, with more than six months still to go it would be foolish to rule Macron out just yet. Stranger things have certainly happened.

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Macron’s road to the Presidency will be a tough one, but one which is far from impossible. 

Francois Fillon gets revenge by ending Nicolas Sarkozy’s political career.

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Nicolas Sarkozy. 

 

Yesterday the French centre-right party ‘Les Republicains’ held the first round of their Presidential Primary to choose their candidate for the Presidential election which will be held in April and May next year.

The winner on the day was Francois Fillon who served as Prime Minister between 2007 and 2012 garnered 44 percent of the vote and advances to the second round next Sunday along with Alain Juppe who served as Prime Minister between 1995 and 1997 and is the current Mayor of Bordeaux, and who received 28 percent of the vote. One name conspicuously absent from the the run-off vote next Sunday will be Nicolas Sarkozy with the former President crashing out after receiving just 20.6 percent of the vote.

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Francois Fillon. 

This was a huge turnaround, with Fillon’s victory adding to the growing trend this year of political events which have confounded the pollsters. In the final days of the primary campaign it had become clear that Fillon was gaining some steam but polling still suggested that he would finish in third place behind Juppe and Sarkozy, indeed just days before the primary election Fillon was polled as having just 20 percent support but he wound up receiving 44 percent of the vote. This means that Fillon is now the overwhelming favourite to be the Republican nominee for the Presidency, and in many people’s eyes the overwhelming favourite to succeed Francois Hollande as the President of France.

Fillon wrapping up the Republican nomination was made even more likely when Nicolas Sarkozy conceded defeat and threw his support behind the man who served as Prime Minister over the course of his Presidency. Although Fillon is a more natural home for Sarkozy’s supporters than the centrist Alain Juppe, that Sarkozy chose to endorse Fillon so unequivocally was perhaps somewhat of a surprise. It was of course Sarkozy who spent the duration of his Presidency referring to Fillon as ‘Mr Nobody’, and political ideology aside there have never been much sign of common ground between the pair. In any case, Sarkozy’s endorsement means that it is now vanishingly unlikely that Fillon will fail to wrap up the nomination on Sunday, with most observers suggesting that this means that he is almost guaranteed to be the next President of France.

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After confounding the pollsters, Fillon is now the favourite to be the next President. 

 

This is because currently topping the polls is Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front. With incumbent President Francois Hollande widely disliked (his approval rating has fallen to four percent, and we saw yesterday with Sarkozy what happens when you have such a low national approval rating) it seems highly unlikely that Hollande or anyone else from his Socialist Party will be able to make much headway in the upcoming Presidential Election. Therefore, there the likeliest outcome seems to be that the two candidates who make the Presidential run-off will be Marine Le Pen, and whoever wins the Republican nomination. Of course, there is the added possibility of centrist independent candidate Emmanuel Macron to consider, but it will be a while yet before we will be able to see whether his campaign has any legs. But, the assumption is that Le Pen will top the vote in the second round, but that whoever joins her in the second round is far more likely to become President. This is because France has a proud recent history of banding together to prevent extremist candidates ascending to the Presidency.

In the 2002 Presidential Election, the two candidates to make it to the second round were Jacques Chirac of the UMP (now know as the Republicans) and Jean-Marie Le Pen (father of Marine) of the National Front. In the first round Chirac had received just 19.88 percent of the vote but in the second round voters banded together to prevent Le Pen winning and Chirac received a huge 82.21 percent of the vote. Many in France from the left to the centre-right are hoping for the same outcome this time around.

However, the common consensus was that Alain Juppe would be the best person to be a consensus candidate in the mould of Chirac who would be best placed to defeat Marine Le Pen in the second round. However, with Juppe so far behind Fillon in the first round of primary voting, it is now looking increasingly unlikely that he will be able to win the Republican nomination. The day before the primary vote, many people got rather worried by a poll that seemed to suggest that Marine Le Pen was likely to triumph in the second round of the Presidential Election. However, this was simply one of the scenarios tested by the pollsters, in it Le Pen faced off against Sarkozy as was found to win narrowly. Juppe, on the other hand, was found to beat Le Pen by between seven and nine points. Given that Fillon’s policy platform is far, far close to Sarkozy’s than it is to Juppe’s (like Sarkozy Fillon is a bona fide right-winger), then it stands that Fillon has significantly less chance than Juppe of beating Le Pen in the second round of the Presidential Election. Despite this, Fillon looks set to win the nomination on Sunday.

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Alain Juppe, who can second in the first round of primary voting, looks the best bet to defeat Marine Le Pen. However, Fillon looks set to beat him to the nomination. 

Of course, given how most political predictions have turned out this year, we cannot take anything for granted, but it seems safe to say that if Francois Fillon is selected as the Republican nominee on Sunday, then Marine Le Pen would be quite a bit closer to the Presidency than she is today.

Can Nicolas Sarkozy complete his political comeback by winning his party’s presidential nomination?

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Former President of France, Nicolas Sarkozy. 

When Nicolas Sarkozy’s was defeated by Francois Hollande in his 2012 bid for re-election as President of France, most thought that his career in politics was over. Sarkozy had entered the 2012 campaign with record-breaking unpopularity, with seventy percent of French voters reporting an unfavourable opinion. Unsurprisingly Hollande, who was the overwhelming favourite throughout the campaign, defeated Sarkozy in both rounds of voting, and Sarkozy subsequently retired from politics as soon as his term in office was over.

However, in September 2014 re-entered politics with the announcement that he would run for the Chairmanship of his political party, which was then called the UMP (Union for a Popular Movement), but is now called The Republicans. Sarkozy was elected to the post and under his leadership the party won a sweeping victory in local elections in March 2015, and was also victorious in the regional elections in December 2015 (despite finishing second in the popular vote to the Front National).

On the back of this success, in August 2016, Sarkozy announced that he would be running for his party’s nomination for the Presidency of France. On Sunday the Republicans will hold their Presidential Primary to determine who will represent the party in the general election due to be held in April and May next year.

With the incumbent President Francois Hollande deeply unpopular (he has somehow managed to eclipse Sarkozy’s unpopularity as President) most observers expect that the winner of the Republicans primary will be the next President. So, if Sarkozy can win here then his comeback will be fully complete.

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The current President, Francois Hollande, is deeply unpopular. 

However, Sarkozy doesn’t have the nomination sewn up by any means. The current leader in opinion polls is Alain Juppe. Juppe is the current Mayor of Bordeaux and he served as Prime Minister between 1995 and 1997 under the Presidency of Jacques Chirac.

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The current Mayor of Bordeux, Alain Juppe, is the favourite for the Republican nomination. 

In addition, Francois Fillon, who served as Prime Minister under Sarkozy, is making a late charge for the nomination.

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Francois Fillon, who was Prime Minister under Sarkozy, is making a late charge for the Republican nomination. 

 

The latest opinion polls put Sarkozy seven points adrift on 29 percent to Juppe’s 36 percent. So as it stands, Sarkozy doesn’t look like he will win the nomination on Sunday but, given the record of political polling this year I wouldn’t rule it out just yet.

Although Sarkozy had always been considered relatively right wing, he generally governed in a centre-right fashion when he served as President between 2007 and 2012. However, for this campaign he reinvented himself as a populist, perhaps in anticipation of a general election showdown with Marine Le Pen of the National Front, leading to current Prime Minister Manuel Valls complaining that parts of the opposition Republicans Party had fallen into a “Trumpisation of the mind.” Throughout the campaign Sarkozy has depicted French national identity as being on the verge of collapse, and has touched upon many of the same themes as the dystopian speech given by Donald Trump at the Republican National Convention which effectively depicted America as on the edge of an abyss. Clearly Sarkozy has seen that this worked in the United States, and so he is trying to replicate it in France.

In this attempts to court voters from the far-right, Sarkozy has pledged to ban Muslim headscarves in universities and public companies, hugely restrict the citizenship rights of children born in France to foreign-born parents, and ban pork-free options in school canteens (currently, Muslim and Jewish children are offered an alternative meal, whilst he has also suggested that France detain everyone on the thousands of people on the intelligence watch list who have never been charged.

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With Marine Le Pen of the National Front leading in the polls, Sarkozy has shifted right in an attempt to court her base. 

Sarkozy’s approach differs markedly from the approach of Juppe, his main rival for the nomination. Juppe suggests that France adopt a “happy identity” which is based upon respect for both religious and ethnic diversity, whilst attacking Sarkozy’s proposals as unworkable, whilst suggesting that Sarkozy does not have “a humane attitude”.

Although some of Sarkozy’s policies are clearly popular in France (see the fact that Marine Le Pen leads the opinion polls in the race for the Presidency for evidence of this), it is Sarkozy himself that they dislike, and that it what is helping Juppe hold onto the lead as we approach the primary on Sunday. Polling undertaken before the election found that although over seventy percent of French voters didn’t want Francois Hollande to continue as President, over sixty percent of voters didn’t want Sarkozy to win another term. Although Sarkozy remains the most recognisable political personality in France, many voters still dislike his apparent interest in celebrity ahead of governance, which led to him being caricatured as ‘Le King of Bling Bling’ during his time as President; whilst his dislike of wine and cheese gives him a reputation as a man of poor taste. In addition, throughout his time as the public eye he has been beset with controversies, with many claiming he is corrupt. For example, the time when he posted a picture on his Facebook page showing him chipping at the Berlin Wall on the occasion of its fall, a picture which was later proved to be a fake. In addition, there is the ongoing claim that his first Presidential campaign was financed by former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi to the tune of €50 million, whilst his former law partner being named in the Panama Papers did nothing to dispel the notion amongst the French public that Sarkozy is somewhat corrupt.

However, given the French electoral system, there is a pretty good chance that if Sarkozy can win the nomination then he will be the next President. In French Presidential Elections there are two rounds of voting. In the first round, a large group of candidates stand and the two with the highest number of votes progress to the second round (unless a candidate reaches the fifty percent threshold in the first round). In the second round, the candidate with the most votes wins the Presidency. Leading in current opinion polls is Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front, which leaves her in with a chance of winning the Presidency, a thought which terrifies much of the left in France. As a result, it is likely that the left and centre-left will coalesce around the candidate facing Le Pen in the second round of voting, which looks highly likely to be the Republican nominee.

As the Republicans are holding an open primary, anyone is able to vote, and there have been reports that many who will likely vote for Le Pen in April have signed up to vote in order to back Sarkozy. However, equally, many who would ordinarily back the Socialist Party have signed up to back Juppe which has led to Sarkozy talking of left-wingers attempting to “steal” the nomination from him, saying at a recent rally, “Where is the sense of loyalty when you are calling on left-wing voters to sign and perjure themselves on a piece of paper in which they say they share the values of the Right?”

Really, given the open nature of the primary, the race has come down to which candidate is best placed to defeat Marine Le Pen at the general election. Given the huge unpopularity of Francois Hollande, if he chooses to run for a second term (he has yet to confirm what his decision is) then it would be very unlikely that he would make the second round of voting. Even if he didn’t run, or didn’t win the Socialist Party primary, then his unpopularity would probably do enough damage to the Socialist nominee (who could be centrist Prime Minister Manuel Valls, or left-winger Arnaud Montebourg) that they would struggle to be successful.

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If Francois Hollande chose not to run for a second term then Prime Minister Manuel Valls (left), or left-wing firebrand Arnaud Montebourg (right), would be the most likely candidates for the Socialist Party. 

There is also the presence of independent centrist candidate, former Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron, but it remains to be seen whether he has the name recognition to compete.

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Independent centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron (who used to be a member of the Socialist Party) is also challenging for the Presidency. 

All in all, the Republican candidate is the most likely to reach the second round with Le Pen, so the question is which of Sarkozy, Juppe, or Fillon is best placed to beat Le Pen? Polling suggests that the best candidate would be Juppe who is projected to beat Le Pen by 68–32, compared to Sarkozy who would be predicted to win by 58–42.

However, the danger of Juppe is that he is unashamedly part of the establishment and he hasn’t tried to hide this during the campaign in the way that Sarkozy has by adopting a populist persona. What this means though, is that Juppe versus Le Pen would set up an establishment versus anti-establishment contest in the same mould as Donald Trump against Hillary Clinton in the United States Presidential Election — and we all know how that worked out.

Overall though, I think Juppe will almost certainly win the Republican nomination, meaning Sarkozy’s political career will surely finally be over. However, given the political results we’ve had this year, nothing is ever certain, and only time will tell.

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.

In praise of Ben Sasse the Uber driver.

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Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse. 

Ben Sasse is the junior United States Senator for Nebraska, having been elected to the Senate in 2014. As a staunchly conservative member of the Republican Party, he is not someone with whom I would ordinarily share very much common ground, however he has always struck me as a hardworking and principled politician.

A news story from earlier this week highlighted this as it emerged that Sasse had been working part time in his home State as an Uber driver in an attempt to connect with his constituents and understand the work that they do on a day to day basis. When asked about it, his spokesman said that he does lots of similar work events, “from changing tires on semi trucks to feeding cattle at 5am”.

Naturally because of the limits on Senator’s outside earnings, Sasse doesn’t make money from the program. Instead, he donates the money to charity with the sole purpose being to better understand the lives of constituents and therefore have the ability to represent them better in Washington D.C.

Although I don’t have much ideological similarity with Sasse, I have to say that this is an excellent idea and one that politicians around the world should consider adopting. One of the abiding themes in politics in recent years has been the dissatisfaction that many voters have with their elected representatives. Often, this is because voters regard their representatives as ‘career politicians’ who don’t understand their daily lives and who are fully insulated from their struggles. This has been one of the key reasons for the move towards support for more anti-establishment political candidates which has culminated this year with the vote for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, and the election of Donald Trump as the President of the United States, and which may yet lead to the election of Marine Le Pen as President of France. Perhaps if politicians were to spend more time with their constituents in this way, then events like this may have been averted.

Overall, I’m sure that there are a great many politicians around the world who care a great deal about the lives of their constituents and who partake in similar schemes to Sasse, but after reading the story on Sasse I thought that it was a particularly nice one and worthy of being shared.

Perhaps if the work of those politicians who do so much to help the lives of their constituents was publicised more, and more politicians were encouraged to participate in the same type of projects as Sasse, then maybe the move toward anti-establishment populist politicians who don’t really have the answers to the problems of real people could be averted.