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These six elections are set to change Europe forever / Matteo Renzi’s referendum trap

Matteo Renzi’s referendum trap
Italy’s prime minister called Sunday’s vote to unite his party, secure his job and make Italy a stronger pillar in EU. The opposite happened.

By GIULIA PARAVICINI 12/2/16, 5:33 AM CET Updated 12/2/16, 7:10 AM CET

ROME — Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi may go down in history alongside David Cameron.

Like the former British prime minister, Renzi called a referendum in order to consolidate political power and — once and for a long time to come — silence opposition within his own ranks.

Instead, like Cameron, the forces Renzi unleashed by calling the referendum have divided his party, the center-left Democratic Party (PD), may cost him his job as prime minister while also doing irreparable damage to his country’s economy and the rest of the European Union.

“If Renzi loses, it will be a historic defeat,” said Giorgio Tonini, a PD senator close to the prime minister. “The party will enter a deep crisis … with a bunch of barons fighting each other — and no king.”

With two days left before Sunday’s crucial vote, which is nominally on constitutional reform, Renzi’s path to victory looks increasingly narrow. Although opinion polls aren’t allowed to publish their findings so close to the day of the vote, clandestine surveys suggest that the ‘No’ campaign remains solidly ahead, despite an intense government campaign for a ‘Yes.’

For weeks, government loyalists have painted apocalyptic scenarios, arguing that a No would unleash a series of unpredictable and uncontrollable events — not least of which would be damage to Italy’s banking system and the ascension of the Euroskeptic 5Star Movement and the coronation of its leader, the comedian-turned-politician Beppe Grillo as Renzi’s replacement.

Some leaders in the populist 5Star want a referendum on Italy’s membership of the eurozone and a renegotiation of the country’s staggering public debt. That, in turn, could reignite the euro crisis, bring about the dissolution of the single currency zone and possibly the collapse of the European Union.

The main problem is that Renzi used the constitution to split the Democratic Party and divide the country” — Miguel Gotor, opponent within Renzi’s own party

Even if Renzi wins the vote and the referendum passes, a new electoral law will come into effect that could be a boon to parties such as the 5Star Movement by making it easier to rule without sharing power. 5Star says it would not join or lead a coalition.

With the vote, Renzi seemingly hoped to heal a split that’s bedeviled the Democrats since its inception in 2007. The party was formed from the ashes of various centre-left parties and heirs to the defunct Communist Party and Christian Democrats which for decades governed Italy. The political span of its constituent parts have, in the years since then, made it a creaky contraption.

“Renzi, like David Cameron, thought he could unite the party with a referendum and all he achieved was to divide it more than ever,” said Francesco Galietti, chief executive of Policy Sonar, a Rome-based political risk consultancy.

When they go to the polls on Sunday, Italians will vote yes or no to a single question that sums up ambitious reforms aimed at trimming Senate powers, reducing the number of senators and strengthening central state powers.

Senior members of the party, including its former leader, Pier Luigi Bersani, and former Prime Minister Massimo D’Alema, have publicly defied Renzi and are now openly campaigning for a No.

Renzi, who presented himself as “il rottamatore,” the demolition man, effectively ended the political career of both men. They in turn have accused Renzi of trampling over the party’s core values by turning it into a centrist machine that serves his own personal political goals.

“The main problem is that Renzi used the constitution to split the Democratic Party and divide the country,” said Miguel Gotor, a Renzi opponent within the prime minister’s own center-left Democratic Party. “This is a serious mistake that weakens both and has to be stopped.”

Gotor said that any apocalyptic scenarios of financial disaster are conjured up by the government and its international allies in Brussels and elsewhere.

“It was the same with Brexit and Trump,” Gotor said. “Markets were supposed to collapse, devastating the economy. Well, it didn’t happen. And it will be the same in Italy.”

Meanwhile, on Thursday evening, former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said that backing Renzi’s constitutional changes would put democracy at risk and that voting Yes would mean voting for a dictatorship.

Some within Renzi’s closest circle are hoping that the opposition from the left of the party might help him win support from the center-right, that is, those voters who would not feel comfortable voting for the anti-establishment 5Star.

Renzi has promised to step down as prime minister if he loses the referendum. If that happens, Italy’s President Sergio Mattarella, after the usual rounds of consultation with political leaders, will appoint a caretaker government whose mandate will be limited to approving a new electoral system and ensuring a steady financial course.

Renzi, in a last attempt to gain votes, is barnstorming the country, especially in crucial areas in the south. He is expected to close out his campaign in Florence on Friday night.

By early Monday, Italy — and the rest of the EU — should know if Renzi will go the way of Cameron. One thing to watch for is voter turnout, said one of the prime minister’s top aides.

“The undecided might still turn the game around.”

These six elections are set to change Europe forever
Inspired by Donald Trump, the right, in all its varieties, is on the march. Here are the key election results to look out for in 2017

Sean O'Grady

As far-right groups across Europe become normalised and more popular than at any time since the end of the Second World War, a series of votes set to be held across the continent could spell doom for the European Union by this time next year. They could even make Brexit irrelevant if far-right parties succeed in restricting freedom of movement of people in the EU, holding back migration to Europe and hastening the break-up of the eurozone.

Inspired by Donald Trump, the right, in all its varieties, is on the march. The left is being routed. Here are the key election results to look out for.

4 December 2016: Italian referendum and the rerun of the Austrian presidential election

Most attention this weekend will be focused on the Italian referendum, which seeks to make Italy easier to govern and reform. But the Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, has made the cardinal error of threatening to resign if his proposed changes are rejected. Meanwhile, the far-right Five Star Movement (Movimento 5 Stelle, or M5S), led by a former comedian, has campaigned vigorously against the proposed changes.

Before a ban on publishing opinion polls a few weeks ago, the “No” camp was ahead. If that turns out to be the result, and Italy is plunged into a fresh political crisis, then her fragile banks could suffer yet another crisis of confidence.

If that continues then it would be beyond the means of the Italian state to save them; indeed the Italian Treasury would be unlikely to be able to sell its bonds to the domestic banks and be forced to go to the EU and the European Central Bank for a Greek-style rescue package.

Trouble is, the eurozone’s solvent members – Germany, the Netherlands and Finland – are running out of the financial means and the political willpower to subsidise their southern neighbours. With a €4 trillion banking system, and with a GDP not far off the UK’s, Italy is a nation that is both too big to save and too big to fail – and big enough to wreck the euro.

The Austrian presidental election is a rerun occasioned by some technical failings in the first poll in May. The result then was extremely tight between the Green candiate Alexander Van der Bellen, just ahead on 50.3 per cent, and the candidate of the far-right Freedom Party, Norbert Hofer, on 49.7 per cent.

Though only a ceremonial post, a Hofer victory would represent an even more significant result for the anti-migrant Eurosceptic right in a eurozone and EU member state – the first time a representative of the far right had been elected head of state or government since the Second World War. By contrast, the once dominant Social Democrats trailed on 11 per cent in the May election. Hofer is the favourite to prevail next week.

15 March 2017: Dutch general election

Once merely a noisy and unpleasant fringe grouping, the “Party for Freedom” (Partij voor de Vrijheid, or PVV), led by Geert Wilders, is just about leading the polls in the Netherlands. Because the Dutch party system is so fragmented, the PVV can do this with just 28 per cent support, a point or two ahead of the conservative governing party, the VVD.

The elections will be contested on the grounds of the economy, migration and the healthcare system. Always a mildly Eurosceptic nation, the Netherlands looks set to tilt further in that direction. Expect less support for the Eurozone’s weaker members, more pressure to restrict migration and more pressure on minorities.

4 May 2017: British local elections

These are unlikely to make much of a cross-continental impact and, ironically, might see a little recovery by the now leading pro-European mainstream party, the Liberal Democrats. Still, the Conservatives and Ukip seem likely to have a good showing, and will take the results as a confirmation of the Brexit referendum vote. A poor showing by Labour would also add to the chances of a Tory win at an early general election, again which would in effect endorse Brexit.

7 May: French presidential election

Polls suggest the conservative Francois Fillon will “trump” the Front National’s Marine Le Pen, but after recent upsets many are nervous. Even if Le Pen doesn’t win, if one in three French voters decided to back her it would be an extraordinary result, and one unthinkable not so long ago. Again, it will add to the anti-European, anti-euro, anti-migrant mood sweeping the West.

22 October 2017: German elections

This is the last date for the contests, which could be held as early as 27 August. Either way, Angela Merkel looks likely to embark on another term in office. But the far right Alternativ fur Deutschland (AfD) is polling at 13 per cent – easily sufficient to secure seats in the Bundestag and be a constant source of agitation against the EU on issues such as subsidies to Greece and Italy and, of course, migration.

Even Chancellor Merkel would have to bow to changing popular opinion, both in her own political grouping – the Bavarian wing of the Christian Democrats are more hostile to migration, for example – and in the nation as a whole.

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