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After Trump, Italy could be the next anti-establishment revolt

Posted by hkarner - 10. November 2016

Date: 10-11-2016
Source: The Economist

Soon eyes will turn to a new European vote that is poised to go against the elite

BEFORE American voters—especially white, male, rural and older ones—carried Donald Trump to victory in America’s presidential election, aggrieved British voters with a similar profile voted to leave the European Union. Equally surly voters in France have been flocking to Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front for months; she is tipped to make the run-off in next year’s presidential election. Alternative for Germany, an anti-immigrant party, is picking up support ahead of a federal election in Germany, also in 2017. Large parts of electorates across the West are fed up with traditional political parties that have in recent years presided over rising inequality and slow economic growth.

Renzi ccThe next big test of the establishment, however, will come in Italy on December 4th. Matteo Renzi (pictured), the prime minister, has called a referendum asking voters to approve proposed changes to the constitution. The idea is to reform the Senate—making the lower chamber decisively more powerful than the upper one—and to bring back many decision-making powers from the regions to the central government. The effect, if he wins, would be to create a more powerful central government and to encourage those in favour of liberal economic reforms.

The bosses of Italy’s biggest companies and the heads of its business associations love the idea of the constitutional changes and back the referendum. A stronger central government would be expected to be pro-business and bring about further reforms, such as speeding up the civil judiciary, cutting bureaucracy and unleashing more competition into Italian markets so that productive capital can flow in. Mr Renzi’s referendum thus looks like a call for Italy to open up for more globalisation—just when a backlash against such ideas is in full swing.

Voters in Britain and America have turned emphatically against policies associated with globalisation, such as free trade and high levels of migration. Italian voters, too, are increasingly likely to vote “no” in the referendum, spurning changes that businesses and some in the political establishment say are essential. If the constitutional changes are thrown out, momentum for further liberal reforms will be lost, with a long-term cost for Italy, one of the largest economies in the euro zone.

The leader of one big business federation in Italy called the Italian referendum the biggest source of political risk in Europe today—though he said that well before Mr Trump’s victory. Indeed, there is widespread concern in the markets that a “no” vote could be the prelude to a general election from which the populist Five Star Movement (M5S) would emerge triumphant.

Mr Renzi had, earlier this year, talked of resigning if he loses in December. He has tried to pull back from that idea more recently. But the pressure on him to honour his word would be considerable. And the M5S’s founder was swift to capitalise on Mr Trump’s triumph, nothing on his blog “quasi-similarities between this American story and the Movement”; the mainstream media had ignored the rise of the M5S, just as it had failed to foresee the Republican’s victory.

Renato Brunetta, the lower-house leader of Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party, said Mr Trump’s victory meant that the prime minister was a “dead man walking”. That, however, assumes Italian voters will be emboldened by the American election result to become even more populist and anti-establishment. That is not certain. They may be more willing to choose the devil they know.

But on December 4th, Italians will have two known devils to choose from: Mr Renzi’s government, the fate of which hangs on a “yes” vote, and the 1948 constitution, which will survive in its present form only with a “no” vote.

A “no”, which is the likeliest outcome, would offer the next piece of evidence that voters in western countries are growing disillusioned and upset with those in power. It won’t be the last: France holds its elections in the spring.

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