Three Monkeys Online

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Renzi’s Populism Backfires – The Italian Referendum

The main message of Matteo Renzi’s referendum campaign was a simple slogan ‘it only takes a yes to change Italy’. Repeatedly in television debates the Italian prime minister reduced the complexities of the constitutional changes proposed to a simple soundbite: a yes vote would bring change, while a no vote would leave Italy with its status quo.

Worried that the constitutional changes might concentrate too much power in one party? Worried that the changes to how the Senate is formed might lead to even more corruption and lack of accountability? Worried that the lack of clarity about the division of powers between the central state and the regions will lead to years of litigation and confusion? All legitimate concerns raised by leading constitutionalists, journalists, and indeed members of Renzi’s own Partito Democratico, brushed aside with the equation that a yes vote will change things. The important thing is to change. Sound familiar?

In exit polls in the US, a large proportion of Trump voters admitted that they believed him unqualified to become President of the United States, but four in ten voters polled identified the ‘ability to bring change’ as the most important quality for the next President. This was a lesson eagerly picked up by Renzi as he tried to sell an increasingly unpopular package of constitutional reforms.

The interesting thing about the term ‘populism’ is that it’s bandied about so much by the newspapers without very much actual definition of what it actually is. Prof. Jan-Werner Muller has written extensively about Populism, and the problems in defining it. He has suggested a way to look at populism is as “a particular moralistic imagination of politics, a way of perceiving the world that sets a morally pure and fully unified – but, I shall argue, ultimately fictional — people against elites who are deemed corrupt or in some way morally inferior”.

This definition can certainly be applied to the Movimento 5 Stelle in Italy, but interestingly in this referendum campaign it was the attitude that Renzi set out with which to frame his reforms. He claimed throughout the campaign that the reforms were about reducing the privileges of La Casta (La Casta or the Caste was a famous book, published in 2007 by journalists Sergio Rizzo and Gian Antonio Stella which detailed extensively the monetary privileges and corruption rife in the Italian political system – the book became a rallying cry of reformers, and in particular Beppe Grillo ), reducing the cost of the Senate, and reducing the amount of seats in parliament. In true populist form he tried to maintain the moral high ground, questioning the motives of those who would vote against the reforms, suggesting that they didn’t want change/to reduce corruption.

For example, in November while debating Maurizio Landini, the secretary of the popular F.I.O.M union, Renzi declared condescendingly “I’ve the suspicion that Landini hasn’t read the reform. I say it with respect. We need to change things, not to defend the caste like you’re doing”*

Things took a bitter turn early on in the referendum campaign when Maria Elena Boschi, co-author of the reforms and one of Renzi’s closest politcal allies, again in moral terms, talked about the criticisms coming from the National Association of Partisans (A.N.P.I). She responded by saying “As the national directive ANPI have definitely taken a line But there are lots of Partisans, the real ones, that fought, and not those that came after, who will vote for the constitutional reforms.”** Remember here that the 1948 constitution was in part written by the Partisans, and much of its logic was created specifically to prevent too strong a government. Lecturing the partisans while advocating an authoritarian turn to the constitution surely lost Boschi and Renzi a number of votes on the left.

Renzi’s government, backed in part by the Nuovo Centrodestra centre-right party, is ostensibly left-wing, but Renzi has firmly found favour with the right-wing with the likes of influential ex-Forza Italia parliamentarian Denis Verdini (once Berlusconi’s right-hand man,and quite a character). Consider for a moment Renzi’s path to power in the PD party. As mayor of Florence, in a straight primary contest in 2012 to lead the party Renzi lost heavily to Pierluigi Bersani, only to be reconsidered in 2013 after Bersani’s failed miserably to win a decisive majority in the elections. Renzi won the primary, against weak competition, and proceeded to drag the PD party into a post-ideological phase (here again we have echoes of Trump, who according to one of his team, Tony Fabrizio, ran a post-ideological campaign). So, a bit like Trump, it’s fair to say that Renzi effectively launched a hostile takeover of the political party he ended up leading, and in some ways he’s paying the price for that now.

Behind the Populism – Reasons why People Voted No

In 2006 Berlusconi, at the height of his pomp, embarked on a strategy of constitutional reform. His reforms differed in a number of important ways to Renzi’s, but some common threads remained. Both looked for a concentration of power in one chamber of the Italian parliament, effectively reducing the power of the Senate, and an electoral law which would give an overwhelming majority to the winning party (a new electoral law, the Italicum has been formulated with precisely that scope). Indeed, more than one commentator has suggested that whilst publicly calling for a no vote, Berlusconi would be quite pleased with a yes vote. And so, not surprisingly, many of the objections constitutionalists and ordinary citizens had back in 2006 remain – the only difference, it seems, is given that Renzi is favoured by the international press and the EU leadership these reforms now become a necessary path for Italian democracy, whilst those of Berlusconi were deemed a threat to that same democracy.

Some of the legitimate reasons people across the political spectrum voted no include a fear that too much power would be centralised in the government. With the new electoral law, a party that wins a narrow victory will have a large majority which in turn gives them an unfair advantage in the election of the President and deciding seats on the constitutional court.

Italy has a complex balance between State and local powers, and the reforms aimed to change that radically, re-taking a number of devolved powers back from the regions. This may or may not be a good thing, depending upon your political philosophy, but plenty of constitutional experts warned that the reform is not clearly defined and has the potential to further complicate an already difficult balance. There have also been suggestions that the re-taking of various powers over local resources (like energy and infrastructure) opens the door to mass privatisations which would be currently subject to negotiations between the state and local authorities. Again, the effect of the electoral law combined with this reform could lead to a party with a narrow winning margin having the power to push through privatisation programs.

Legitimacy and Democracy

There has been a huge amount of attention placed upon the results of the Italian constitutional referendum – much more than was the case when Berlusconi’s attempted reforms were defeated in 2006. Of course the world was a very different place back in 2006. There was no international banking crisis, and while Italy’s public debt was occasionally talked about in worried terms, there were precious few fears about the Italian banking system. In fact, at the start of the international banking crisis the recurring mantra of commentators both inside and outside Italy was that the Italian banking sector was one of the more secure, with very little exposure to the sub-prime market or American banks.

By 2013, though, things had changed considerably. Under intense pressure from international markets Silvio Berlusconi’s government fell in 2011, and he was replaced by the technocratic government of Mario Monti. In a now infamous document published by the Europe Economic Research branch of JP Morgan, entitled The Euro area adjustment: about halfway there we get a good view of how economists and ‘technocrats’ viewed and presumably still view Italy’s constitution:

“The political systems in the periphery were established in the aftermath of dictatorship, and were defined by that experience. Constitutions tend to show astrong socialist influence, reflecting the political strength that left wing parties gained after the defeat of fascism. Political systems around the periphery typically display several of the following features: weak executives; weak central states relative to regions; constitutional protection of labor rights; consensus building systems which foster political clientalism; and the right to protest if unwelcome changes are made to the political status quo. The shortcomings of this political legacy have been revealed by the crisis. Countries around the periphery have only been partially successful in producing fiscal and economic reform agendas, with governments constrained by constitutions (Portugal), powerful regions (Spain), and the rise of populist parties(Italy and Greece).”

Italy’s banks, its public debt, its labour laws and its bureaucracy are all seen as a large impediment to stronger European integration, and thus are problems that need to be resolved, regardless of the reaction of the Italian public. Constitutional reform to encourage strong government, weaker labour protections, and an insulation of the political system to protest. It may be coincidental that a major constitutional reform was proposed as a priority by a government that has precious little mandate to introduce such sweeping reforms, but many in Italy have seen the Renzi/Boschi reforms as drafted from Europe with a view to keeping Italy on track with European austerity. Democracy may be weakened – and there can be little argument that Renzi’s reforms strongly favoured governability over representation – but that seems to be the price for continued European integration.

It’s worth pointing out that Matteo Renzi has been at odds with the EU Commission at various points during his administration, and many welcomed his bullish attitude towards the fiscal compact, and his justified criticism of the EU handling of immigration which has seen Italy largely left alone to deal with a large influx of migration via the mediterranean; notwithstanding that, it’s also worth pointing out that the likes of Jean Claude Junker and Wolfgang Schäuble publicly supported Renzi’s reform (which many have jokingly referred to as the kiss of death for the reforms).

Renzi’s gift to the right

Watching the marathon referendum special on Italy’s La 7, as the results of the various counts came in and it became more obvious that the vote would be a convincing no vote, journalist Aldo Cazzullo remarked that this is very obviously a victory for the right wing, given that amongst those who had campaigned against the reforms were Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, Giorgia Meloni’s Fratteli d’Italia, and Matteo Salvini’s Lega Nord. The really big winners of the night were undoubtedly the Movimento 5 Stelle , thought the jury is still out as to whether to put Beppe Grillo’s party the on the right or the left, the very obvious losers were Renzi’s centre-left party the Partito Democratico.

This is a neat narrative, which fits nicely into the idea of a populist right-wing movement rising across Europe, helpfully fuelled by Brexit and the rise of Trump. A neat narrative gladly accepted by the likes of Marine Le Pen, who on twitter was quick to claim the no vote as a part of a slap in the face to the EU. Neat, but absurd. The more complex and less media-friendly explanation is that Matteo Renzi’s reforms were deeply unpopular across the board. Many prominent members of his own party campaigned against a yes vote (including the Richilieu like figure of Massimo D’Allema, and Pierluigi Bersani who defeated Renzi in the primaries for the PD party in 2012), whilst various left-wing unions (the F.I.O.M for example) and members of civil society (A.N.P.I the National Association of Partisans) were outspoken in their criticism of what was described as an authoritarian and poorly thought-out package of reforms. Indeed many of the left wing critics of Berlusconi’s failed constitutional reforms in 2006 remained equally against Renzi’s packages in 2016.

That’s not to suggest that there weren’t plenty of right-wing voters delighted to vote against Renzi’s reforms as a way to assert right-wing identity politics. This is a growing problem, but it’s also a growing problem precisely because of the media oxygen provided to two-bit operators like Salvini, whose electoral base in the polls remains at around 12% (in the 2013 election the Lega Nord took just 4%, though they reached 16% in the regional elections).

In a certain sense, though, Cazzullo was right (and it pains me to say that), because a right-wing / neo-liberal paradigm has been established in the press whereby there are only two options on the table – neo-liberal reforms and a curtailment of democracy, or right-wing populism (regardless of the facts). And had Renzi’s reforms won? It would certainly have been a victory for neither the left-wing or democracy.

*”Ho il sospetto che la riforma non l’abbia letta, Landini. Glielo dico con rispetto. Bisogna cambiare le cose, non difendere la Casta come fate voi” – Matteo Renzi, 20 Novembre

*Come direttivo nazionale, l’Anpi ha sicuramente preso una linea. Poi però ci sono molti partigiani, quelli veri, che hanno combattuto, e non quelli venuti poi, che voteranno sì alla riforma costituzionale Boschi all’ANPI – 22 may 2016

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