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.

David Petraeus would be the most ironic appointment to Donald Trump’s Cabinet.

President-elect Donald Trump.

Throughout the Presidential Campaign much of Donald Trump’s pitch for the job rested on his promises to “drain the swamp” and clean Washington D.C. of corruption. By this he meant (and generally said) that he wanted to reduce the impact that special interests and Wall Street had on policy making. In addition, he repeatedly looked to whip up anger around Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server during her time as Secretary of State, with chants of “lock her up” commonplace during his rallies, as well as at the Republican National Convention. Although Trump’s promises to clean up Washington undoubtedly gained him some of his support, those that he is now considering for appointment to his Cabinet have proved that it was simply empty rhetoric.

To start with, his transition team is a who’s who of K Street lobbyists. Given that many of these people undoubtedly know what it takes to create a government, then you could argue that it isn’t the worst thing in the world, however it flies directly in the face of what Trump campaigned on. In addition, just look at some of the names that Trump has suggested for Cabinet appointments. For Treasury Secretary, Trump is said to be considering ex-Goldman Sachs banker Steven Mnuchin, as well as investors Wilbur Ross, Carl Icahn, and Tom Barrack. There was even a suggestion that Trump had offered the role to JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon (a high profile supporter of Clinton and the Democratic Party), only for him to turn the role down, probably in large part because of his opposition to Trump. Those being considered for many of the other Cabinet roles are much the same. Trump is said to be considering venture capitalist Robert Grady, as well as oilmen Harold Hamm and Forrest Lucas for Secretary of the Interior. He is said to be considering the billionaire co-founder of PayPal, Peter Thiel, as the Secretary of Commerce; and a variety of oil executives have been suggested as Secretary of Energy. Although many of these people directly supported Trump’s campaign, are they not the exact people Trump pledged that he was going to remove from Government?

The latest irony comes with the consideration of retired general David Petraeus for the role of Secretary of State. Now, experience wise, Petraeus would arguably be a pretty good pick for the role. Petraeus was key during the invasion of Iraq, he has led the US Central Command, he has served as the Commander of the U.S. Forces in Afghanistan, and he has served as the Director of the CIA. In short, his experience is close to unrivalled. However, the scandal which led to his departure from the CIA in 2012 would surely make it difficult for him to be appointed. In 2012, Petraeus resigned from his position as Director of the CIA following the fallout from his affair with the author of his biography, Paula Broadwell. Later, in January 2015, Petraeus was charged with providing classified information to Broadwell. Ultimately, in March of the same year, Petraeus pled guilty in Federal Court to a charge of the unauthorised removal and retention of classified information, for which he was sentenced to two years probation and a fine of $100,000. Throughout the campaign, Trump repeatedly criticised Clinton for her handling of classified information, despite the fact that following an investigation by the FBI, James Comey chose to recommend that she not face any criminal charges, but describing her as careless. Whilst Clinton was careless yet not actually guilty of any criminality, Petraeus pleaded guilty to a charge of mishandling classified information, yet he is now being strongly considered for a place in Donald Trump’s Cabinet.

Retired general David Petraeus, under consideration for the role of Secretary of State in Donald Trump’s Cabinet

Republican Senator for Kentucky, Rand Paul, recognised the problem were Petraeus to be appointed when he said on Monday: “You know, I think the problem they’re going to have if they put him forward is there’s a lot of similarities to Hillary Clinton as far as revealing classified information.” And Paul is right, how can you spend an entire campaign criticising someone for their alleged mishandling of classified information, and then appoint someone who was actually guilty of mishandling classified information to your Cabinet? The same way that you can fill the rest of your Cabinet and your transition team with special interests only days after pledging to eliminate special interests from Washington, I suppose.

What this proves is that, as many suspected all along, Trump’s pronouncements over the course of the campaign were simply empty rhetoric designed to curry favour with a neglected part of the electorate and get him elected. I suppose that really it is no surprise that he is already going back on so many of the promises that he made during the campaign.

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. 

The curious case of Utah.

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Independent Presidential Candidate, Evan McMullin. 

You may have seen this week’s polling in Utah which suggested that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were tied in the State, each with 26 percent support. For Clinton to be tied with Trump is what is usually considered a safely Republican state is strange in itself, but what is even stranger is that both major party candidates could muster only 26 percent support each, with third-party candidates being supported by the remaining Utahns.

Independent candidate Evan McMullin was found to have 22 percent support. Add to this that Libertarian Party candidate, Gary Johnson, is polling at around 14 percent, and Utah is perhaps becoming one of the more interesting states to watch in this Presidential election. This is odd for a state which was expected to be safely Republican. Indeed, the last time Utah didn’t vote Republican in a Presidential election was 1964.

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Recent polls have shown Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump tied in Utah.

Why is Donald Trump yet to secure Utah?

There are several factors which have contributed towards Trump’s failure to secure Utah.

We can point to the recent release of more evidence of lewd behaviour by Trump, including the release last Friday of a tape of Trump’s 2005 appearance on Access Hollywood. However, the roots of Trump’s lack of support in Utah actually began much earlier than this.

Utahns never particularly warmed to Trump or Trumpism. In the Utah Republican Caucus Trump could only come third, receiving just 13.82 percent of the vote, and finishing behind Ohio Governor John Kasich and the winner, Texan Senator Ted Cruz. Generally, this has been attributed to the skepticism of Mormons (who comprise a large proportion of Utah’s population) towards Trump, with many Mormon’s being angered by Trump’s criticism of Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith whilst on the campaign trail. Nevertheless, it was still expected to be a state which the Republican nominee would be able to count on come the general election. But, this has perhaps been changed by Evan McMullin entrance into the race.

At the 2013 Values Voter Summit.
Ted Cruz won Utah’s Republican Caucus. 

McMullin is running as an independent, but is associated with the Republican Party. After ten years working for the CIA, he worked for Goldman Sachs, before becoming a senior advisor for the Republicans in the House of Representatives. McMullin was born is Utah and is a Morman. This has led to many Utah Republicans flocking to support him (as he is considered a ‘real’ Republican) ahead of the divisive Donald Trump.


Could McMullin win Utah?

The short answer here is, yes, he could. Despite extremely low name-recognition, McMullin is already polling at between 20–22 percent, and is therefore closing in on Trump and Clinton. With the release of these polls, his name recognition will have undoubtedly increased, which will help his candidacy.

But, whether McMullin can get over the line in Utah may depend on one person: fellow Mormon Mitt Romney. Romney’s popularity and influence in Utah cannot be overstated. In 2012, Romney won the Utah Republican Primary with an astonishing 93.1 percent of the vote, and he then won 72.62 percent of the Utah vote in the general election. In addition, Mitt Romney chose to endorse Ted Cruz in Utah’s 2016 Republican Caucus. Cruz subsequently won 69.46 percent of the vote.

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Mitt Romney is hugely popular and influential in Utah. 
McMullin has already benefited from Romney’s help, and is said to be using an email list cultivated by Romney’s 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns. But, if Romney were to endorse McMullin then this could allow him to win the state. Romney is someone who Utahns clearly listen to very closely, and if he is to suggest that they should vote McMullin over Trump, it is likely that many would listen.

Could McMullin become President?

Surely none of this speculation matters, right? I mean, McMullin has absolutely no chance of becoming President. For a start, he’s only on the ballot in eleven states, making it almost mathematically impossible for him to get the 270 electoral votes required to win in the electoral college. So this means he can never become President, right?

Wrong!

Whilst McMullin has no chance of an outright victory in the Presidential election, his winning Utah could be enough to prevent either of Clinton or Trump winning the 270 electoral votes required to win in the Electoral College. If the Electoral College is deadlocked, then the 12th amendment mandates how the election is decided. The top three candidates (that is, the three with the most electoral votes) are sent to the House of Representatives. Each State delegation in the House receives one vote, and casts it for their favoured candidate. The candidate with the most votes becomes President.

Given that the Republican Party controls thirty-three of the House’s state delegations, you would think that this would point to a Trump victory. However, Republicans have been deserting Trump in droves in the past week. In addition, who knows what the Republicans majority in the House will look like after 8 November. In this situation, the Republican Party in the House would likely be very divided. It may be that many Republicans choose to go for McMullin in order to negate the possibility of a Clinton victory. Whilst many Democrats may consider McMullin as a ‘lesser evil’ when compared to Trump, and so could support him. In any case, in the very unlikely event that the Electoral College is deadlocked, McMullin would have a pretty good chance of winning the Presidency. Likewise, the same could be said of Libertarian Gary Johnson if he is able to win either New Mexico or New Hampshire (although both of these states are looking pretty safe for Clinton at the moment).

Conclusion:

Evan McMullin is not going to become President. The likelihood of the Electoral College being deadlocked is very, very low.

However, his success in Utah could still have a key effect on the outcome of this election. Utah is a state that Trump must win if he is to have any chance of winning the Presidency.

Given that Trump is already struggling in such Republican strongholds as Arizona, he cannot afford to lose Utah.

As it stands, Clinton is going to win this election easily. When it comes to the popular vote, although Clinton will likely win, it probably won’t be by a huge margin. I would be surprised if the popular vote margin is that much more than the margin when Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney in 2012.

However, it is the Electoral College which could make Clinton’s victory look huge. She looks set to carry a huge number of states, and if McMullin does win Utah, then this just takes yet another state away from Trump, making Clinton’s task even easier.