ROME - Two ambitious young prime ministers gambled this year with referendums. Both lost and immediately resigned. And that is where the resemblance between David Cameron in Britain and Matteo Renzi in Italy ends.
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Cameron promised a referendum on Britain leaving in the European Union in the hope of calming the anti-European voices within his own party and stemming the flow of voters to the far-right UKIP. It was a political strategy that helped win the 2015 election but cost him his job a year later and handed victory to the Eurosceptics he had hoped to tame.
Renzi on the other hand wanted to push through an amendment to the Italian constitution which would have helped him pass a series of reforms Italy desperately needs. Haste, bad timing and hubris cost him dear. But to his credit, he took the risk knowingly. When Cameron faced the cameras outside Downing Street on the morning after Britain voted for Brexit, it was clear that his resignation was also the end of his political career. Sunday night, when Renzi stood in very similar circumstance in Palazzo Chigi, ninety minutes after the exit polls made it clear he was about to suffer a crushing defeat, it looked much more like he was only taking a timeout.
Seconds after announcing he would be going to the president to tender his resignation, he was already launched on his re-election speech, listing the achievements of his government. And even though the electorate had resoundingly rejected his proposal to change the constitution, he was not to be deterred. “We cannot continue with a system that everyone is criticizing for decades but can’t agree on changing” was his parting flourish. He’s only forty-one. Italy’s youngest-ever prime minister. And he’ll be back.
The choice made Sunday by Italian voters is also not that similar to the one of Britons five months earlier. Some 52 percent of the voters in Britain chose to take the United Kingdom out of the European Union, after over four decades of prosperity, in the hope that Britain has a brighter and freer future, detached from the shackles of Brussels. The Italians on the other hand voted for the status quo and by a margin that surprised the pollsters who were already predicting two weeks ago Renzi’s defeat. The margin can be attributed in a large part to the greater than expected turnout – 65 percent. Even normally apathetic citizens were motivated to vote, especially younger Italians, influenced by the well-organized online campaign run by the Five Star Movement lead by the comedian Beppe Grillo.
It was a victory for the populist Five Star Movement and the far-right Lega Nord, which fought Renzi and is calling for a second referendum, this time on leaving the Eurozone. But it wasn’t just them. Two-thirds of the parties in Italy’s political system opposed the changes to the constitution and many of the 59 percent who voted against were liberals and supporters of centrist parties. They feared a rushed change in the checks and balances Italy imposed on its politics after the Second World War, designed to prevent a return to fascism. Renzi failed to convince the voters, especially young Italians who are estranged from the political process, the deeper change he has been trying to bring about. Instead, the referendum became a vote of confidence on Renzi himself, and at a period when his popularity is at a low-point, due to frustration over the very slow movement of Italy’s economy out of prolonged stagnation.
Italy however still needs deep and substantial reform. The populists and extremists may have won on Sunday but they are not proposing any program, asides from leaving the Euro and blocking immigration. Over the next few months, President Sergio Mattarella will focus, along with the leaders of the mainstream parties, to form a temporary government which will make changes to the electoral system, changed only last year, to make it harder for a Five Stars-Lega Nord alliance to take power. Renzi meanwhile will go back home to Florence, back to the drawing-board, to plan the next stage in his ongoing campaign. His supporters, who now constitute a formidable minority of forty percent of Italians still see him as the country’s best chance and also as the best chance for Europe’s future. Bello ciao, he’ll be back pretty soon.
Meanwhile the struggle for Europe’s future goes on further afield. Last week Francois Hollande announced he would not be running in six months for another term as France’s president. Not that anyone, even himself, gave him a chance of winning. In the space of days, Europe is bidding farewell to its two main center-left leaders. But the wave of populism crashing over the continent is now threatening also the center-right. Cameron is gone and even German Chancellor Angela Merkel, facing an election next year, is no longer safe.
There are of course significant differences between the three referenda which took place in Europe over the last eighteen months in Italy, Britain and Greece, but one result they all share was a rejection of the centrist camp in Europe, led by Merkel and her finance minister Wolfgang Schauble. The Germans’ insistence on strict management of the Eurozone and clinging to the principles of the European political project, including the freedom of movement across the continent, so hated by the xenophobic far-right, has cost their allies across the EU dearly. Merkel lost this week another key ally In Renzi.
For the last month, ever since Donald Trump won the election in the United States, she is being described as the new leader of the free world – a job description Frau Merkel never wanted and may not be the right person to fulfill. But with Cameron and Renzi gone, and Hollande about to depart, the question of whether Merkel can still lead Europe is becoming ever more pressing.