In the spotlight: Italy’s referendum and the future of populism in Europe

Nathanael Williams

As the tremors from the weekend’s Italian referendum vote reverberate around Europe, CommonSpace takes a look at the players and outcomes behind the result 

MATTEO RENZI, Italian Prime Minister, announced his resignation last night after a crushing 20 point defeat in Sunday’s [4 December] referendum on constitutional reform.

As more than 90 per cent of the results have been counted, the No campaign led with almost 60 per cent of the vote to slightly over 40 per cent for "Yes".

We look at the players who drove the vote and the possible outcomes for Italy and Europe.

What were the reforms?

The Italian Government proposed a major overhaul of the country’s government.

Amid claims that the current two-chamber setup is too slow and too expensive Renzi hoped to weaken the political influence of the Senate by significantly reducing the number of elected Senators and appointees. This would have ended the so-called “perfect” system where both parliamentary chambers have equal powers which can lead to gridlocks and long negotiations.

Renzi also believed political reforms could solve the woes of the Italian economy which has stalled for 16 years with unemployment at a high of 11.5 per cent. Only Greece has had a worse performance of any eurozone country since the 2008 financial crisis.

Why were they rejected?

Many feared that these reforms would lead to the concentration of power in the hands of the office of the prime minister and would weaken the Senate’s ability to check policies.

In a press conference after the vote, spokesperson of the populist movement M5S Alessandro Di Battista said: “We can change our constitution now to give more power to citizens. We want to thank voters for choosing No, but now it's time to stop saying that we are an anti-politics movement. We have defended the values of the Italian constitution.”

In many respects, the rejection may have had more to do with a traditional politics of Italy which has been mired historically by corruption, cronyism and declining economic standards.

Along with constitutional reform, Renzi also wanted to reduce the traditional power of the regions which he argued would have made Italy a more solid union but opponents resented this as a power grab and a violation of Italy's federal traditions.

Who championed the No vote?

The campaign for No was varied and as soon as the results came in many started taking the credit for having been the main drivers.

The anti-immigration Lega Nord, which seeks separation for some of Italy’s most northern provinces, joined with the new political outsiders the 5 Star Movement and the disgraced ex-prime minister Silvio Berlusconi to campaign against the changes. Though some of the No campaigners were of the right, the populist movement in Italy is ideologically diverse.

What is the 5 Star Movement?

The Five Star Movement or Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S) is Italy’s biggest opposition group. It was started by Beppe Grillo, a popular comedian and blogger, and the now deceased Gianroberto Casaleggio, a web strategist in 2009 and has been criticised for being too “populist” and noncoherent by those who say it threatens the Italian established way of doing politics and Italy’s place in the EU. 

The fact that neither of its founders were professional politicians is at the root of its massive appeal as it plays to Italians disgust for a political class entwined with organised crime and corruption.

Political analysts have likened M5S to a “constant Arab Spring” as it uses the internet to rally support. Though the Party started as an anarchist-socialist force, it has attracted a large number of pro-capitalist and anti-migrant supporters in recent years, making it hard to define.

The party only has two confirmed proposed policy positions including a guaranteed minimum income and improvements to social housing. Heavily in favour of digital democracy, the party envisages, similar to the Pirate party in Iceland, a time when party organisation will be a thing of the past leading to direct democracy in Italy. 

There have been severe disagreements on party platforms with the worst arguments centring on immigration. Grillo himself is said to be a fan of Trump but has stepped back from negative rhetoric on refugees. However, others in M5S are less enthusiastic about the party’s original left-leaning stance on the subject.

However, despite this incoherence, they continue to gain ground. Earlier this year in the elections for mayor of Rome they defeated Renzi’s Democratic Party by a landslide with their candidate Virginia Raggi elected as the first female mayor of the capital. They also won the ballot in Turin, where another woman, Chiara Appendino was elected mayor of the City.

What happens now?

It is unclear whether there will be a snap election. This would be a decision for Italian President Sergio Mattarella. The opponents of the reforms, the M5S and Lega Nord, are in favour of a snap election as soon as possible.

However, the most likely outcome may be a caretaker administration which will replace the Renzi Government. In this caretaker government, Renzi’s Democratic Party will still dominate and carry on until an election in spring 2018.

What about the euro?

Following the referendum result, the euro fell sharply in value against the dollar. It continued to fall after Renzi's announcement to its lowest level since March 2015. There are concerns the No vote could boost the prospects of opposition groups who are against keeping Italy in the eurozone.

In terms of the EU it means that if Italian voters will so emphatically reject a domestic agenda of reform then any imposed reform from the EU will also result in the growth of anti-Eu and establishment sentiment.

The referendum has shown the strength and reach of populism across Europe and the discontent with the political establishment – right and left. 

Pictures courtesy of pdemilia-romagna, Universitat de Foscari, Metripolico

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