It was a tough weekend for European politics. In Austria, the center held as voters rejected a far-right candidate for president. In Italy, however, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi suffered a crushing defeat in a referendum on constitutional reform that he had turned into a referendum on his government. He promised to resign after the results were in, ushering in not only a political and economic crisis for Italy but for Europe as well.
Austria’s presidential ballot was a rerun of a May vote: then, far-right Freedom Party candidate Norbert Hofer lost by 31,000 votes. He contested that outcome, only to lose the second election by an even larger margin to Green Party candidate Alexander Van der Bellen. While Austria’s presidency is a largely ceremonial position, it has sufficient power to clash with the center-left government that currently rules.
More significantly, Hofer’s victory would have signaled a new respectability to far right politics in Europe. He, and like-minded politicians throughout the continent, had hoped that they could ride the anti-establishment tide that powered the Brexit vote and the Trump candidacy to victory, setting the stage for election wins next year in France, Germany and the Netherlands. Instead, Austrian voters drew a line against such radical politics, even in a country with a checkered history concerning the right.
The results were more muddied in Italy, as is so often the case. Renzi took office two years ago determined to shake up the ossified and crusty bureaucracy that institutionalized political dysfunction and paralyzed the economy. He proposed a package of reforms that would streamline and make more efficient the legislative process by reducing the power of the Senate, the upper house of the legislature, and the regional governments, two moves that would also empower the Rome authorities. Committed to change, Renzi promised that if the referendum was defeated he would step down as well.
With a turnout of 65 percent — high by Italian standards — the verdict was clear: Italians rejected the referendum, and Renzi, with nearly 60 percent voting “no” and just 40 percent backing the measures. Honoring his pre-election pledge, Renzi met with President Sergio Mattarella on Monday to offer his resignation, but he was asked to remain in office until the country’s budget is approved, which could occur as soon as Friday.
While there is no obvious successor to Renzi, Finance Minister Pier Carlo Padoan is widely anticipated to get the first call from Mattarella to form a new government given the center-left’s majority in parliament. National elections are scheduled for 2018, but Mattarella could also call for an early ballot to attempt to provide the new government with more legitimacy and authority. The first task of the new government will be drafting a new election law, and the price for passage of any legislation could be agreement to an early vote.
The Five Star Movement, a populist opposition group that spearheaded the “no” forces, wants an early election to capitalize on its success in driving Renzi from office as well as to exploit the anti-establishment mood that is swelling worldwide. Current opinion polls show the ruling Democratic Party narrowly ahead of the Five Star, but the group is convinced that events are working in its favor. One of the Five Star leaders greeted the referendum defeat with the pronouncement that “starting tomorrow we’ll be at work on a Five Star government.”
While Italy is no stranger to political uncertainty — it has had five prime ministers in the past five years and 63 governments over the last 70 years — the timing of this interlude of chaos could not be worse. Italian banks, including some of the country’s largest, are creaking under the mounting weight of bad loans and plans to revitalize them are now being reassessed; private investors are unlikely to offer new capital when the political environment is uncertain. Their retreat would force the government to step in, a move that raises issues about European Union rules.
The prospect of the EU blocking the recapitalization of Italian banks — and Italy is the EU’s third-largest economy — would play into the hands of the Five Star Movement, which is opposed to EU membership and would like to hold a referendum on both the euro and continued participation in the union.
Italy’s reassessment of its membership in the EU could shake the union in ways that Brexit did not. Britain was not a member of the euro, but more important, it was not a founding member of the European Common Market, which Italy was. Generations of Italian political leaders have been committed to deeper integration and have long seen a solid European political construct as a bulwark for their country, providing it with stability and a lifeline to a larger political community. Today, many Italians view the EU as a drag on its economy by imposing rules that do not fit their country’s economic circumstances, while offering little protection against the tides of migrants that enter Italy daily.
Austria’s elections showed that there are limits to how far some Europeans are prepared to go in support of anti-establishment sentiment. In Italy, voters are still protesting; they have not yet decided what they are for. The next few weeks and months could be extremely important not only to Italy’s future but that of all Europe as well.
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