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[ANALYSIS] Italy: After Brexit and Trump… Renzixit?

Has Matteo Renzi’s loss in the Italian referendum written another chapter in a global ‘anti-establishment’ revolt that has already witnessed Brexit and Donald Trump elected US President?

james
James Debono
14 December 2016, 8:01am
Matteo Renzi presented a referendum on the Italian Constitution as a clear choice between change and 'la casta'
Matteo Renzi presented a referendum on the Italian Constitution as a clear choice between change and 'la casta'
Matteo Renzi, the 41-year-old premier whose political ascent was built on his reputation of being the “rottamattore” (the demolition man), himself presented a referendum on the Italian Constitution as a clear choice between change and “la casta” (the caste) – namely politicians who make a life-long career as parliamentarians in a country which has 630 MPs and 315 senators, all elected by universal suffrage and in various layers of local government. 

Renzi proposed to cut the number of senators by 200 – leaving just 100 senators nominated by the regions, and limiting their power to that of tweaking legislation passed by MPs. The referendum itself had nothing to say on Italy’s membership of the eurozone or the European Union – a favourite punching bag of Renzi who often lambasts the EU for its fiscal zeal and inertia on immigration.

The Economist, which had opposed Brexit and supported Hillary Clinton for US president – considered by many as the mouthpiece of the global liberal elites – was unequivocal in calling on the Italians to vote No, warning that a ‘yes’ victory in the referendum would have made it easier for the populist Beppe Grillo, who wants a referendum on the euro, to win power.

If Renzi persists in a bid to reclaim power… the result could be fatal, with the only alternative being Beppe Grillo or a reinvigorated centre-right, which increasingly depends on Matteo Salvini’s
If Renzi persists in a bid to reclaim power… the result could be fatal, with the only alternative being Beppe Grillo or a reinvigorated centre-right, which increasingly depends on Matteo Salvini’s
The Economist warned Renzi has passed an electoral law for the Chamber that gives immense power to the winner of the next election. Had Italy removed its elected senate, the next prime minister would have had “an almost guaranteed mandate for five years”.

Judging by the names of those who militated for the ‘no’ or ‘yes’, it is not easy whose vote was most pro-establishment. Surely Grillo’s 5 star movement (M5S) and Matteo Salvini’s far-right Lega Nord campaigned for the no. But so did Mario Monti, the former technocratic PM who replaced the elected Berlusconi in 2013, as well as former centre-left prime minister Massimo D’Alema, a faction of the Democratic Party, the trade unions and the remnants of the far-left and Berlusoni himself. 

Eminent constitutionalists dominated the no campaign. On the yes side one could find the majority of Renzi’s party and a chunk of defectors from Berlusconi’s own party and leading businessmen, like the scandal-prone Flavio Briatore and FIAT’s Sergio Marchionne.

The result gave momentum to MS5 and the Lega, both of which campaigned for a no and hope to benefit from Renzi’s demise. This does not mean the referendum split Italians into two camps of anti-EU, anti-migrant populists pitted against a liberal, globalist elite – as happened with Brexit and Trump – but the result suggests a geographical divide with cities like Florence and Milan supporting the reform, while the south overwhelmingly rejecting it by a 72% margin in Palermo and Sardinia.

Renzi’s high-stake gamble

What led Italy to this impasse was Renzi’s own ambition.

Following an inconclusive electoral result which saw the centre-left led by Pier Luigi Bersani win a working majority in the chamber of deputies (in coalition with Sinistra Ecologia Libertà) but not in the senate, Renzi worked his way to power, first by becoming leader of the Democrats following Bersani’s failure to rope in Grillos M5S into a left-wing government, and then by back-stabbing Enrico Letta – who was appointed prime minister in 2013 – after being unceremoniously dumped by Renzi’s party in a palace coup.

Ironically by rejecting Bersani’s overtures to join him in a coalition, Grillo had a determining role in Renzi’s rise to power.

What has always preoccupied Renzi was the fact that he lacked any popular legitimacy, having worked his way to power in the aftermath of a general election in which he was not a candidate. To counter this perception, galvanised by a success in the European elections in 2014, which gave his party 40% of the vote share, Renzi was determined to cement his power base by presenting himself as a reformer of a sclerotic political system. 

Matteo Renzi with Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat
Matteo Renzi with Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat
In power, allied with a group of renegades from Forza Italia led by Angelino Alfano, he managed to do what Berlusoni had wished but failed to do; reform Italy’s labour laws, making it easier for employers to hire and fire workers through the Jobs Act and reforming the electoral law to give the party with the relative majority, an automatic majority in the Chamber of Deputies (the Italicum law). By doing so he attracted more defectors from Forza Italia, which political analysts interpreted as the formation of a new national party attracting the support of moderates from both centre-right and centre-left. 

Yet it was Berlusconi – who after sending conciliatory messages to Renzi in the so-called “nazzareno pact” – ultimately denied him the required two-thirds majority for the constitutional reform aimed at drastically reducing the power of the senate. The only way out of this impasse was a confirmative referendum on the constitutional reform, approved by a simple majority.

It was at this juncture that Renzi raised the stakes: by turning a referendum on constitutional reforms into a referendum on himself, promising to resign if Italians turned down the reforms. This declaration, made at a time when he enjoyed greater popularity in the polls, had one inevitable consequence: setting in motion an alliance of all those who wanted Renzi removed, ranging from enemies in his own party, such as D’Alema (who represented the old establishment in the post-communist party) to the so-called anti establishment parties. 

Like David Cameron and his Brexit referendum, both men gambled their political future on referenda dictated by personal political calculations. For Cameron the Brexit referendum was the price he had to pay to buy the loyalty of eurosceptic right-wing MPs. For Renzi, the referendum was his way of getting the political legitimacy he lacked as Italy’s unelected Prime Minister. 

Is Renzi history?

But while David Cameron’s resignation meant his definitive exit from the political scene, Renzi may well have other intentions.

Surely he has kept his word by presenting his resignation. He also gave a dignified speech hours after the massive defeat which saw 60% rejecting his reform, in which he boosted his credentials as a reformer, by saying that unlike others he will not remain gripped to power. But as Prime Minister Joseph Muscat suggested (after speaking to his close ally), Renzi “has the energy and is still young enough to return at the highest levels”.

This raises the question on whether Renzi himself had factored the possibility of defeat in his high-stakes gamble. For the fear of hubris and chaos may well work in Renzi’s favour. His political calculation may be that the 40% who voted “yes” for the proposed reforms provides him with a solid electoral base, which in the fragmented political landscape may well assure him of victory in an electoral campaign dominated by the prospect of more instability and economic decline. 

Much will depend on whether Renzi will stay on as leader of the Democratic Party. 

Down in the swamp: Silvio Berlusconi, Beppe Grillo, and Matteo Salvini formed the three poles opposing Matteo Renzi’s high-stakes gamble for constitutional reform. Renzi’s next moves could determine whether any of these parties ends up in government in a coalition that excludes the centre-left. Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Down in the swamp: Silvio Berlusconi, Beppe Grillo, and Matteo Salvini formed the three poles opposing Matteo Renzi’s high-stakes gamble for constitutional reform. Renzi’s next moves could determine whether any of these parties ends up in government in a coalition that excludes the centre-left. Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
He now faces a stark choice: either taking a sabbatical until after the next election, or to make a last ditch attempt to win back power by seeking the popular mandate. The risk of the latter course is another high-stakes gamble with the country’s political future.

Sure enough Renzi has made it clear that elections should be held as soon as possible. But with the current electoral system, Italy may well end up with none of Italy’s three poles, namely the democrats, the centre-right (allied with the Lega Nord) and the M5S able to form a government. 

But if he persists in a bid to reclaim power after being rejected by 60% of voters, Renzi risks being exposed as a Machiavellian politician who pushed his country to the brink only to advance his own political fortunes. In this case the result could be fatal, for the only alternative to Renzi may well be Beppe Grillo or a reinvigorated centre right, which increasingly depends on Salvini’s far-right.

The other alternative may be as lethal, for deprived of Renzi’s charisma and ability to reach out to moderate voters, the five star movement may well emerge as Italy’s largest party. No wonder Grillo has now changed tack, demanding a tweaking of the electoral reform by applying the Italicum (which grants a majority of seats to the party with the greatest number of votes) to the senate (which is still elected through the proportional system).

Ironically such a reform would have the same result as Renzi’s constitutional reform, granting unlimited power to the relative majority party. In the current fragmented Italian scenario, this could well mean a party with just 30% of the vote getting power without the need to form a coalition.

What is the Movimento Cinque Stelle?

With the centre-right unable to recover its past glory when Sivio Berlusconi managed to create an alliance of moderates (including former members of the defunct Christian Democrats and Italian Socialists) with the Lega Nord and post-fascist National Alliance, the most plausible alternative to Renzi’s Democratic Party is now the 5-star movement (MS%)

The MS5 was started by Beppe Grillo, a popular comedian who was once banned from the RAI after criticizing former Italian premier Bettino Craxi, and Gianroberto Casaleggio, a web strategist, in 2009. While the party owes its origins to Grillo’s anti-corruption and environmentalist platforms, initially taking votes from the left by opposing high-speed rails and incineration plants, the party has lately become more ambiguous on civil rights and immigration issues. 

It is this ambiguity which makes the MS5 an attractive option for both angry right-wing voters attracted by Grillo’s euroscepticism and left-wing voters who feel betrayed by Renzi’s ideological lurch to the centre. 

It was this combination of disparate groups of voters which facilitated the election of MS5 mayors in Rome and Turin. For while in the first round the two female candidates, Virginia Raggi and Chaira Appendino, won the support of left-wing voters, in the second round they relied on the support of right-wing voters whose candidate was eliminated in the first round.

An example of Grillo’s ambiguity was his stance on the civil unions law. When the government of Matteo Renzi was finally poised to pass a law on civil unions, the M5S suddenly withdrew support and members were told to vote according to their consciences, thus dooming the most controversial plank, the one allowing gay couples to adopt.

Beppe Grillo himself personally opposed the abolition of a law introduced under Berlusconi, which made irregular immigration a criminal act
Beppe Grillo himself personally opposed the abolition of a law introduced under Berlusconi, which made irregular immigration a criminal act
Moreover Grillo himself personally opposed the abolition of a law introduced under Berlusconi, which made irregular immigration a criminal act. But in a reflection of the party’s disparate composition, the majority of M5S activists voted in favour of the removal of the law. 

Their partnership with the UK Independence Party was decided by online voting, although the given options for the choice of a European Parliament group for M5S were limited to: Europe of Freedom and Democracy (EFD), European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) and “Stay independent” (Non-Inscrits). The option of joining the Greens/EFA group was not included in the choice. 

MS5 MPs have distinguished themselves by invective and verbal violence against “the establishment”, something which appeals to a broad coalition of disenfranchised voters. One notable instance of such verbal violence involved insults by MS5 MPs directed against the President of the Chamber of Deputies, Laura Boldrini, in 2014. “Two deputies came up and covered me with insults. They were no longer able to control their violence. This is not possible in any place of work,” Boldrini denounced. 

This prompted Corrado Augias, a famous Italian journalist, to compare the violence used by the M5S to fascism. The following day a militant MS5 activist burned books of Augias and uploaded the photos to his Facebook profile, because according to him “Augias offended the movement”. The major drawback for the MS5 is lingering doubts on the party’s ability to govern. Raggi’s performance as mayor has so far been chaotic. This may explain why Grillo wants an election as soon as possible rather than give more time for his party to prove itself in local government.

james
James Debono is MaltaToday's chief reporter on environment, planning and land use issues, ...