The Cable

With Populists Poised to Quash Italian Referendum, Renzi Takes a Page From Trump’s Playbook

Will Italy’s government be the next Western casualty of anti-establishment discontent?

BRUSSELS, BELGIUM - MARCH 18:  Italy's Prime Minister Matteo Renzi arrives at the Council of the European Union on the second day of an EU summit, on March 18, 2016 in Brussels, Belgium. EU leaders have gathered for a two-day summit to discuss a number of issues including the ongoing migrant crisis.  (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)
BRUSSELS, BELGIUM - MARCH 18: Italy's Prime Minister Matteo Renzi arrives at the Council of the European Union on the second day of an EU summit, on March 18, 2016 in Brussels, Belgium. EU leaders have gathered for a two-day summit to discuss a number of issues including the ongoing migrant crisis. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)

Despite a year of protest votes and howls against politics-as-usual worldwide, Italy’s leader is praying voters next month will stick with the establishment.

On Dec. 4, a referendum will be put to voters on a constitutional reform proposal by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. The plan itself is a dry, domestic issue, but the vote is seen by many as a proxy on Renzi’s mandate after more than two years of governing. Now emboldened by Donald Trump’s big upset in the U.S. presidential election, Italy’s anti-establishment parties are sharpening their knives in hopes that an opportunity to move in for the kill is nigh.

“This is a general ‘Fuck off,’’’ Beppe Grillo, spokesman of Italy’s growing Five Star Movement, said after Trump won the election. Writing on his popular blog, the former comedian predicted his growing political party would be next to ride to power on a wave of popular discontent: “We are the barbarians! The real idiots, populists and demagogues are the journalists and the establishment intellectuals,” he crowed. “There are similarities between this American story and the Movement.”

If passed, Renzi’s reform would reduce the Senate’s power, streamlining decision making in a bid to avoid the constant gridlock and instability that plagues Italian politics. But critics — including some members of Renzi’s own Democratic Party — charge that the reform would weaken checks and balances, giving too much power to the executive.

Recent polls show that voters are likely to reject the reform simply as a protest. Fed up with Italy’s flatlining economy and high youth unemployment, they are likely less interested in the merits of the reform than Renzi’s earlier pledges to step down if he loses (a promise he’s recently walked back).

But the 41-year-old premier isn’t taking the threat lying down. The consequences are steep: If Renzi loses, he might choose to stay in power, but his government would be significantly weakened and even potentially pave the way for a Five Star takeover in 2017 or 2018. And so Renzi is now seeking to portray himself, and his reforms, as agents of change to disaffected Italians — a page straight out of Trump’s playbook.

Recognizing the anti-establishment mood of the moment, Renzi has staged huge rallies in central squares and theaters, deployed members of his party to stump for “yes” votes around the country, and invested in a big advertisement push with the slogan, “If you vote ‘no,’ nothing will change.”

“If we are just going to tread water, it’s better that someone else comes in. I am not someone who is able to just remain in the swamp,” Renzi said on Italian television Sunday, echoing Trump’s wildly popular “drain the swamp” chants at his rallies. “

But as the Five Star Movement, the far-right Northern League and former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia whip up voters to reject the referendum, Renzi’s entreaties may fall on deaf ears.

“He came to power as the change maker, as the outsider that was going to demolish the established political system,” Matteo Garavoglia, a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, told Foreign Policy. Renzi has “been sucked in by the usual stuff, in that respect, and he’s now increasingly seen as part of the establishment himself.”

Forza Italia seized on Trump’s election to remind Italian voters in a tweet that, “In America they voted ‘No.’” Perhaps seeing an opening for a comeback if Renzi falls, Berlusconi told an Italian newspaper the “same spirit of rejection” that helped bring Trump to office will also convince Italian voters to reject the referendum.

The far-right Northern League also predicted Renzi, who vocally supported Hillary Clinton in the U.S. election, has miscalculated the scale and direction of the Italian public’s dissatisfaction.  

“The U.S. election will help all those who have not had the courage to come out and say ‘I will vote No’,” said Guglielmo Picchi, a Northern League lawmaker.

But Renzi characterized the reform’s critics — many of whom previously supported it — as  defenders of the status quo. He called them “horses who balked in front of an obstacle” and opportunistic “professionals at staying afloat” instead of being focused on rooting out corruption and tackling complex issues.

Renzi, after all, isn’t necessarily a typical establishment figure; as the 39-year-old mayor of Florence, he was virtually unknown on the national stage when he rose to power in 2014. Initially, he was nicknamed the ‘rottamatore’ or destroyer, of his party’s expected conventions, attracting many young Italians with his center-left vision of government that wiped out inefficiencies and corruption to support startups and youth employment.

Three months after he was voted into power by his party, Italians showed their approval during an European Union parliamentary election, giving a record 40.8 percent of seats to his Democratic Party.

But the siren call of change coming from true outsiders may prove irresistible this year. Despite some initial strong measures in Renzi’s first year in office — tax cuts, a new Jobs Act to ease youth employment, and a public administration reform aimed at wrestling with Italy’s overwhelming bureaucracy — he increasingly looks stale as the economy continues to stagnate.

Garavoglia noted that Renzi became prime minister by winning the leadership of the well-established Democratic Party, which has roots going back to the years immediately following World War II. By contrast, the Five Star Movement was founded in 2009 and has gained momentum with a fresh message of transparency and Euro-skepticism: The party won two big mayoral elections this year, in Rome and Turin, and looks poised to take a large share of the vote if Italy convenes snap parliamentary elections next year.

Garavoglia predicted voters may not be receptive to Renzi’s messages of change. All but one of 33 polls in recent weeks show Renzi losing the referendum.

“I think effectively he came to power as ‘the new,’ and now there are other people claiming to be the new ones and he is the old one,” Garavoglia said. “I don’t see that changing much.”

Photo credit: Carl Court/Getty Images

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