After Renzi

Thomas Jones

Technically speaking, the No vote in Italy’s constitutional referendum yesterday was a vote for the status quo. But its architect, Matteo Renzi, who has resigned as prime minister after the vote didn’t go his way, was one of the few people to see it like that. For a lot of voters who want things to change, getting rid of Renzi seemed a better bet than his proposals for getting rid of the Senate. Italy is the only country in Europe with a ‘perfectly bicameral’ system. The upper and lower houses of parliament have equal legislative powers: both are able to draft legislation, and no laws can be passed without the approval of both. Renzi wanted to replace the directly elected Senate with a smaller chamber, representing the regions, with diminished powers.

It’s hard to draw any clear lessons from the vote, given the aggregate of interests that rejected Renzi’s plan. Some people voted No to force the prime minister’s resignation; others because they were worried that the proposed reforms would concentrate too much power in the hands of the executive. And there’s more than one reason for Renzi’s unpopularity, including his perceived failure to tackle the problems of ongoing economic stagnation, failing banks, persistent unemployment and immigration.

Matteo Salvini, the leader of the racist, nationalist Northern League (LN), celebrated a ‘day of national liberation’. 'Viva Trump, viva Putin, viva la Le Pen e viva la Lega!’ he tweeted.

Beppe Grillo, the leader of the populist Five Star Movement (M5S) and friend of Nigel Farage, said that ‘democracy has won’ and called for a general election as soon as possible.

Massimo D’Alema, the prime minister from 1998 to 2000 and a member of Renzi’s economically and socially liberal – old labels like ‘centre left’ have little purchase these days – Democratic Party (PD), had campaigned against his leader, and he too was in a jubilant mood. ‘They were handing the country to Grillo,’ he said. ‘We stopped them.’

Whether or not D’Alema is right about that depends on what happens next. That’s in the hands of the president of the republic, Sergio Mattarella. Corriere della Sera has put forward five scenarios:

1. An immediate dissolution of parliament and general elections, as favoured by the M5S
2. Mattarella doesn’t accept Renzi’s resignation and he continues in power
3. A technocratic government takes over, led by someone like Mario Draghi, currently the president of the European Central Bank
4. An interim government led by Pietro Grasso, the speaker of the Senate
5. A ‘tecnico-politico’ government, led by Pier Carlo Padoan, the finance minister, or Dario Franceschini, the culture minister

La Repubblica considers the fifth option the most likely.

Grillo wants an immediate general election in order to capitalise not only on the momentum of Renzi’s defeat yesterday, but also on the mess of Italy’s half-reformed electoral system. Last year, parliament passed a law – known as ‘Italicum’ – that guarantees the winning party a majority in the lower house, automatically allocating it 340 of the 630 seats. Along with the reforms to the Senate that were rejected yesterday, Italicum was supposed to provide political ‘stability’ and more ‘efficient’ government – euphemisms for entrenching the power of the parties of the ‘centre’. But the danger now, from their point of view, is that an early election under Italicum would hand power to the M5S, so they’ll be scrabbling to undo it – it needs changing anyway, since it assumed that the Senate reforms would go ahead – and return to a system of proportional representation before dissolving parliament. There’s little reason to regret this. M5S’s scant record in office is dismal. The party’s Virginia Raggi has been mayor of Rome since 22 June, and her administration is already mired in incompetence and corruption allegations.

At the next general election, whenever it’s held and under whatever system, voters are likely to be offered a choice between authoritatian populism, as represented by the LN and the M5S, and neoliberal technocracy in the form of a PD-led coalition of the political old guard. It’s the same grim choice that British voters thought they had in June’s referendum, that American voters were offered last month, and that French voters are likely to be given in their presidential election next year.

The Austrian presidential election was a different kind of two-horse race. It may be an anomaly, but it does suggest that an authoritarian populist can be defeated by someone other than a down-the-line neoliberal career politician (Cameron, Clinton, Renzi, Fillon), if they ever get the chance to mount a serious challenge. The left, where it exists, and the greens for that matter, will have to overcome many different forms of opposition before they can come to power – not to mention afterwards; just look at Syriza’s fortunes in Greece – not least of which is the mass media. The BBC, CNN and others are all reporting the Austrian result as a defeat for the far right, illustrated with photographs of Norbert Hofer, the losing candidate, rather than as a victory for Austria’s new president (a largely ceremonial position, but symbols are not without force), the Green Party’s Alexander Van der Bellen.


  • 6 December 2016 at 3:01pm
    IPFreely says:
    It might be tempting to put Trump, Farage and La Pen into one category and call them 'far right' or populists but there are big differences between the consequences for the USA, Britain and France of the election/referendum results. Trump will be a worse president than GW Bush, worse even than Calvin Coolidge (no, maybe not but I wouldn't put any money on that) and La Pen won't make it to president . The most significant aspect of our political era for me is the incompetence of the ruling class who seem to have decided that Murphy's Law is the only law that matters. What can go wrong does go wrong - even Putin knows that.
    The Austrian president does have more than just a ceremonial position. Hofer delighted in telling people that they were going to be surprised at the extent of his powers when he was elected. That might just have been one of the reasons for his defeat.

  • 13 December 2016 at 10:06pm
    Tanvyeboyo says:
    French presidential election voters can choose, in the first round of voting, to have a run-off round between two candidates who are not necessarily in the mould of 'a choice between authoritarian populism and neoliberal technocracy'. The interesting emergence of Emmanuel Macron in France shows that 'new politics' doesn't have to be populist. Renzi came to power in Italy through a palace coup, he is just another machine politician. Like France's François Hollande, ('moi Président), he promised more than he could deliver in the context of current political conditions and institutional framework. The rest of Europe is not condemned to repeat the interesting experiences of Anglo countries, probably no more EU exits and no more Trumps. Leave that to the Philippines and other banana republics. A month ago, pundits were predicting a 2017 run-off featuring Sarkozy and Hollande. Both have fallen by the wayside. History is speeding up but we cannot be so sure where it is headed.