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.

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.