Monday, December 05, 2016

Two important votes in Europe

A referendum in Italy and a presidential election in Austria over the weekend were two highly-charged events in the wake of the Brexit fiasco earlier this year and the Trump election just last month. What transpired in these two votes was kind of complicated, but certainly not disastrous.
First the Italian referendum. Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, in a self-destructing and career-ending move not dissimilar to David Cameron's fateful decision to call a referendum on Brexit, decided to call a referendum to change parts of Italy's Byzantine political system (purportedly to ease the passage of laws), the main thrust of which would be to strengthen the power of the Prime Minister and to weaken the upper house, or Senate. Italians turned out in droves (well over 70%) to vote a resounding "No" to the changes, by a margin of 60% to 40%.
So, arguably nothing has changed. But Renzi had put his political career on the line with the vote, and has now been obliged to resign. Also, the vote was widely seen as a rejection of the status quo and establishment politics, and opposition parties (principally the rightist anti-Europe Five Star Movement and the Northern League) are now howling for a new general election. They probably won't get one, and the country will probably limp on with a Democratic Party caretaker administration until regular elections take place in spring of 2018. The Italian economy remains shaky, and several of its major banks are still teetering above the abyss, but life will go on much as before.
But there was some good news as well this weekend. The presidential election in Austria, touted as a referendum on traditional European ideals and liberalism, resulted in a surprise defeat for populist, far-right candidate Norbert Hofer in favour of Alexander van der Bellen, the moderate pro-Europe candidate. The Austrian Presidency is largely ceremonial and does not carry much power in the country's internal and external politics, but van der Bellen's victory (with about 53% to 47% of the vote) was at least symbolic, and elicited a communal sigh of relief in Europe and around the world, even if the vote was relatively tight.
France, the Netherlands and Germany - all countries where anti-immigration and anti-establishment factions are gaining ground in recent years - all face general elections in 2017. But Austria has shown us that, sometimes at least, cooler heads can prevail.

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