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.