Italy Could Be Latest Country to Say 'Yes' to Populism

Defeat for the Italian center-left in key referendum vote Sunday could be coupled with the double whammy of a far-right president being elected in Austria.

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi talks during a meeting in support of the 'Yes' vote in the upcoming constitutional reform referendum in Rome, Italy November 26, 2016.
Alessandro Bianchi, Reuters

ROME – There were two marches in the center of the Italian capital last Sunday. One was organized by Italy’s populist Five Star Movement against the proposed changes to the constitution, which Italians will be voting on in a referendum this Sunday. It was attended by just a few thousand people and, despite a fiery speech by the movement’s leader, Beppe Grillo, the march was not particularly emotional.

A few blocks away, there was another march to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. It attracted a huge group of participants, including orchestras and jugglers. Many of the marchers wore colorful shirts. One woman who took part – a teacher by the name of Francesca Bagiani – said she was not yet sure how she would vote in the referendum. The politicians on both sides seem to be cut off from the public, but this march was an event she could connect with, Bagiani added.

There hasn’t been much enthusiasm over the referendum campaign, and opinion polls indicate that about half of the voters won’t even show up to cast their ballots.

Among those who actually say they will be voting, many don’t appear particularly well-informed about the details of the proposed constitutional changes. According to the polls, about 15 percent of the public has yet to decide what their position is on the referendum – which involves a proposal that would reduce the size of the Italian Senate by two-thirds. If approved, the upper house of parliament (the Chamber of Deputies) would lose its authority to approve or put a halt to legislation, and would become mainly an advisory body, with power shifting to the lower house.

The changes were proposed by Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who put his personal prestige on the line over the referendum and is expected to resign if his proposal is rejected by the voters. International economists also predict that a resignation of Renzi’s government might trigger economic instability that could result in the failure of several of the country’s leading banks, which are sitting on 360-billion-euros ($383 billion) of loans that apparently would not be repaid.

But the economists’ warnings, and Renzi’s argument that Italy needs change in order to allow the government to pass reform legislation, are not making any impression on many Italians.

For his part, Raffaello Paranzi, a shuttle driver in Rome, says he’s voting no, because Prime Minister Renzi is acting like a dictator who is trying to harm the country. Paranzi says Italy needs Beppe Grillo as prime minister, since Grillo – a charismatic, former comedian – listens to the people.

Renzi is being accused of trying to change the constitution without sufficient consultation or consensus among most of the country’s political parties. Most of his opponents on the left and the right are against the proposal, and there are those who interpret it as an attempt by the premier to paint himself as the only leader presenting an alternative for the country’s future.

It’s hard to conduct a campaign based on a constitutional proposal that needs to be explained to the people, said Lia Quartapelle, a member of parliament from Milan who is considered a rising star in Renzi’s Democratic party. She said she thought Renzi regretted that the referendum had become a vote on his own personal popularity.

In many respects, he is suffering from the fact that people are afraid of having strong leaders after the trauma of the years during which Silvio Berlusconi was prime minister, she said, adding that Berlusconi didn’t advance real policy. Instead, he constantly made excuses that he was being stymied by the Senate and the courts. Renzi, she said, is offering practical solutions and wants to make changes to the Senate so the excuses will be over.

Berlusconi, 80, still casts a shadow over Italian politics with his television presence as a staunch opponent to change. Then there are the unflattering comparisons between him and the 41-year-old Renzi, who is also capable of delivering rather polished, populist appearances – even if his policy is a lot more serious. But the flame of Renzi, a former mayor of Florence who was propelled to his nation’s highest office less than three years ago, has dimmed a bit recently. Even his supporters are concerned by how he has turned himself into the personal face of the campaign, without cooperating with the leaders of other parties. They say it could spell trouble and may cost him the referendum.

The most recent polls, from nearly two weeks ago, indicated that opponents of the constitutional change had a six to seven percentage point lead. Italian law bans the publication of polling results in the last two weeks prior to an election, but pollsters are still working for various parties and the results have been leaked to the internet through hints – sometimes amusing ones. One website reported on a poll of Catholic Church cardinals on the question of which Catholic saint is the most popular. There were only two candidates, whose names were a play on the words “Yes” and “No” in Italian. They were Norberto (No) and Simplicio (Si).

Despite the shortfall in Renzi’s showing in the polls, his associates still believe they have a good chance of winning due to the expected turnout in the north, where the economy is doing relatively well and where support for constitutional change is higher. A lower turnout is expected in the poorer and more crime-ridden south, where there is widespread opposition to constitutional change but also widespread distrust of politicians in general.

But even if the opponents of constitutional change prevail and Renzi resigns, as he promised with such an outcome, that won’t spell the end of the meteoric political career of a man who became prime minister at 38. As long as he doesn’t lose by more than 10 percentage points, Renzi could claim to have garnered the personal support of nearly half the voters and could expect that in the next election it would also translate into votes for his Democratic party.

As a practical matter, the Democrats have taken control of the political center and it’s the only party that currently represents a clear policy of reform. Renzi could resign next week, but he still intends to remain at the helm of his party and to run again in an effort to increase his mandate.

Yet still, despite the optimism of Renzi’s supporters, the concern remains that without reference to the referendum results, anti-European extremist parties in Italy will continue to gain strength. The election system was changed recently and gives added representation to the largest party, making it easier for it to form a coalition.

Even if the voters support a change in the constitution, it’s not certain that Renzi’s party will win the next election. The Five Star Movement is not far from it in current polls, and the prospect cannot be ruled out that it will prevail. And as a result of the new constitution, it would have a lot more power to advance a populist policy and push a new referendum – this time over leaving the eurozone. If the “No” camp wins the referendum, that of course would give an additional push to Grillo’s supporters.

Italy’s chaotic politics might provide Europe with the next blow – after the British public voted in June to leave the European Union and following the election of Donald Trump on the other side of the Atlantic. The presidential election in Austria, which may be won by far-right candidate Norbert Hofer, would make this weekend a double whammy.

And in the months to come, there are elections scheduled for the Netherlands, France and Germany – all of which are expected to usher in increased strength for the extreme right.

Even if the dark predictions over the collapse of the banks in Italy don’t come true, a victory by the “No” camp will be perceived as a continuation of the wave of populism in Europe, and as a blow to one of the few young, successful politicians on the European center-left.