Populism: the turn of Italy?

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There are just a few days left for the important and unnecessary referendum in Italy on the constitutional reform, and the ‘No’ continues leading the polls. The constitutional referendum has become a popular reprobation move to Matteo Renzi, the Italian PM, and although no one in Brussels wants the president of the Consiglio to lose, everyone assumes that this might be the case and prepares for chaos.

Matteo Renzi is not the most popular leader in Brussels. He had repeated and noisy confrontations with Jean-Claude Juncker and his commissioners. Inside the European Council, he is considered a bully and melodrama’ addict, with a lust for headship and excessive ambition. But in both institutions and most European capitals it is believed that a defeat will bring, at best, a turn of his policies not favorable to Europe. And at worst, the return of Italy once again, the fourth country of the Union, to chaos and instability.

To change the bad omens which the polls are forecasting, PM Matteo Renzi has announced a package of measures to be included in the 2017 budget. The main objective of these measures is to get more support for a reform which has turned into one of the fundamental pillars of his government, consultation that has become a judgment on Renzi himself, on the Italian economic situation and the role that should be played in Europe. If Renzi loses on December 4th, his mandate and his political project could end abruptly and immediately.

Renzi has risked a lot by convening this referendum, and the ‘No’ could mean the loss of investors’ confidence in the Italian economy, confidence which has already begun to glimpse after Trump’s victory in the US Presidential election, since Renzi was positioned in a reckless manner in favour of Clinton. Some see it as the next clash between the moderate and liberal center, and populist forces, as the opposition to Renzi is dominated by anti-system parties such as the Five Star Movement, led by Beppe Grillo, and the Northern League. Both have questioned the Italian permanence in the Eurozone and both are against the political establishment. Other analysts have called populist the fact of convening this referendum.

There was no need for this referendum. The reforms which are intended to be achieved, the reduction of the powers and size of the Italian Senate, which will make it difficult to block key projects for the regional administrations, could have been carried out from the Parliament with the necessary support. Then, Renzi thought he would win, while now he is fighting to save his own skin. Renzi personalized the result of the referendum too much in himself and about his leadership, a fact that the opposition has taken advantage to turn the voting into an opportunity to dismiss him, either to weaken Renzi or expel him from power.

The PM, who yesterday sent a message of ease to the markets, maintains that his constitutional reform will increase the Italian weight in the decision-making process of the EU, at the current turbulent moment for Europe after the Brexit and the coming elections in France and Germany in 2017.

Regarding the Italian weight in Europe, Renzi officially protested about Spanish PM, Mariano Rajoy being invited into a summit held two weeks ago in Berlin. At that summit were Merkel, Obama, Theresa May and Hollande. Renzi did not consider appropriate for Rajoy to attend, since it seems to take away some of “his” political weight, so he protested angrily. Merkel did not flinch: she considers Rajoy a reliable ally, and even possible more stable personally and in his position than Renzi.

The Italians are very polarized, with such a virulence not seen for years. From north to south, through the islands, in Italy there is no other talk but this consult. In the cafes, in the social networks and even in public transport, many express their indecision before this election. “There is a lot of talk, indeed, but there is also a lot of confusion. People do not quite understand what the reform is about,” some analysts say. The Italians are confused by the consult itself, but also by the vanity of Renzi, as he has projected it as a judgment on his person and what he has done since 2014, when he started as Italian PM, and so have interpreted the Italians. Meanwhile, the Italian and international media predict scenarios as apocalyptic as Italy will abandon the Eurozone if the PM loses.

It is very difficult to predict exactly what will happen. Per some political analysts, might be possible that Renzi presented his resignation to the President of the Italian Republic who will reject it. Everything is possible, although no one in Italy nor in Europe, want the country to fall into chaos or new elections. It seems like Renzi ‘s magic is gone, despite his involvement in TV shows, after hiring Jim Messina, Obama’s advisor and former campaign manager, to help him win now.

Renzi has been considered a Machiavellian politician and is now a prisoner of his own bluff. If he loses, Italy will again enter a period of political instability, will be a new hole in EU integration and a new threat to the Euro. This context has probably motivated the support received from Obama and Chancellor Merkel, with whom Renzi has lately publicly fought. On the contrary, winning this consult would undoubtedly reinforce the Italian PM figure as well as his margin of action, something he desperately needs.

The real political leaders are required to fix problems, not to create them. Renzi has created the problem that has now become its own big problem. Win or lose, he need a cure of humility and more unpretentiousness.

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