Italy's Prime Minister Matteo Renzi announces his resignation after voters struck down a referendum on constitutional reforms. (Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images)
By Michael Birnbaum and Anthony FaiolaDecember 4 at 7:31 PM
BRUSSELS –Europe’s embattled political establishment lost another round Sunday in its effort to thwart the anti-elite movement, as Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi resigned following a voter rejection of his constitutional reforms. But a center-left presidential candidate in Austria handily defeated his far-right challenger.
The thorough rejection of Renzi’s efforts to streamline lawmaking was a significant boost for the country’s surging populistforces just weeks after Donald Trump prevailed in the United States. Renzi’s loss also risked unleashing financial upheaval in Europe’s third-largest economy, as Italy’s weak banks struggle to contain the fallout.
But the surprisingly strong presidential victory in Austria for an elder statesman formerly of the Green Party suggested that there were still some limits to a wave of anti-elite anger that began with British vote to leave the European Union and continued with Trump last month.
A populist takeover of Italy is still an uncertain prospect, since Renzi’s center-left Democratic Party remains in control of the parliament and national elections do not have to be called until 2018. But much will depend on the makeup of the next government and how the anti-immigrant, euroskeptic parties capitalize on their success.
“I have not managed to reach victory,” an emotional Renzi said early Monday, conceding defeat at the Palazzo Chigi, his official residence. “My government ends today.”
Austrian presidential candidate Alexander Van der Bellen, a former leading member of the Greens Party, celebrates as election returns show him leading in the race. (Matthias Schrader/AP)
With nearly two-thirds of the vote counted, 60 percent of voters rejected the reform, a drubbing that far outpaced opinion polls ahead of the referendum.
Viewed narrowly, Sunday’s vote was actually in favor of the status quo, since the constitution will now remain the same. But the referendum to streamline the political system and diminish the role of the Senate long ago turned into a broader vote of confidence in Renzi, the youthful, Twitter-loving leader who portrayed himself as a lone warrior against Euroskeptic forces.
The lead opposition to Renzi, the insurgent Five Star movement, ran a spirited campaign against the prime minister’s reforms, joining forces with an unlikely cross-section of allies, including some in Renzi’s own party. Many establishment politicians also questioned whether the reforms truly made sense as the country contends with grim prospects for growth and a wave of migration from Africa. Some said the changes were poorly written and, by removing checks on the prime minister’s power, could actually enable populists should they ever win the country’s top job.
Renzi, who took office in February 2014, always struggled to budge unemployment and improve the economy. For many voters the referendum was as much a rejection of Renzi personally as it was an endorsement of his populist opponents.
Italy, which has had 63 governments in the last 70 years, is no stranger to political chaos.What comes next will depend partially on Italian President Sergio Mattarella, who is charged with picking a new person to try form a government and whether to hold early elections. Elections are a key demand from the Five Star movement, which is running a close second to Renzi’s party in the polls. The euro dropped one percent against the dollar in early Asian trading following the release of initial exit polls, but financial analysts cautioned against panic.
In the wake of Renzi’s resignation, Italy’s mainstream political parties are likely to change voting laws to dilute the possibility an insurgent force could seize power in the next elections by making it more difficult to rule without a wide coalition. That would be a further check against the Five Star movement, although it would also further entrench Italy’s general political dysfunction.
Renzi’s anti-establishment opponents were trying to capitalize on a wave of skepticism about the ability of elites to deal with globalization and the long, painful effects of the economic crisis that started nearly a decade ago. The Trump victory last month cheered the Five Star Movement, an insurgent anti-euro force that has support on the left and the right.
“Today the arrogance that's remained in power these last years has lost,” said Luigi Di Maio, who is expected to be the party’s candidate for prime minister in the next election. “So ends the era of shortcuts and tweets.”
Sunday’s votes in Austria and Italy captured the extent to which Europeans are as politically polarized as Americans, split on issues including immigration and free trade.
In Austria,the far-right Freedom Party’s Norbert Hofer conceded defeat on his Facebook page less than 30 minutes after polls closed and following projections showing a surprisingly strong lead for Alexander Van der Bellen. The 72-year-old statesman and former Green Party politician was winning by 53.3 percent to 46.7 percent with nearly 100 percent of the votes counted.
The result was an unexpectedly clear victory for Austria’s beleaguered political establishment — one suggesting the aggressive tactics and Trump-style campaign deployed by the Austrian far-right may have hurt more than they helped.
Sunday’s election, in fact, was a rerun of one in May in which Hofer lost by 31,000 votes, a result he successfully contested. His defeat on Sunday by a far larger margin, observers said, may suggest European voters’ unease with the comparisons of their politicians to Trump. It also seemed to rob the momentum from far-right leaders in France and the Netherlands who have called Trump’s victory part of a new “world order” that they were hoping to join in elections next year.
Following Hofer’s concession, he and Van der Bellen exchanged a long handshake for photographers in the Vienna studios of Austrian state broadcaster ORF. Van der Bellen credited his victory to a “broad movement” backing “freedom, equality and solidarity.” His campaign manager, Lothar Lockl, saw the margin as evidence of a push against the nationalist tide by moderates.
“A movement could be evolving here, which is not only for Austria, but can also bring about a change of attitude in the whole of Europe,” he said.
The race for the ceremonial role as president held high stakes. The position is constitutionally ambiguous, yet Hofer, who has decried Muslim immigration and free trade, had vowed to beef it up — setting up a clash with the center-left government and the European Union. Freedom Party supporters on Sunday had hoped for a “Trump bump” — but it bumped the wrong way.
“The Trump bump could always go either way,” said Reinhard Heinisch, a political scientist at the University of Salzburg. “The fact is, Trump is not very popular in Austria.”
Hofer’s campaign in Austria seemed to echo Trump’s, with far-right outlets spreading damaging fake news and Hofer and his surrogates taking aim at red herrings such as his opponent’s health. There were more allegations of dirty tricks on election day.
On Sunday, Austria’s domestic intelligence service launched an investigation into a mass text message that stated that only Hofer voters should show up because polling stations were overcrowded. Van der Bellen supporters, the text said, should instead vote on Monday — although polls would be closed by then, according to the Austrian daily Der Standard.
The race was perhaps more important as a bellwether of post-Trump voter trends in Europe, where nationalists are poised to stage potent 2017 campaigns in France, Germany and the Netherlands. A Hofer victory would have potentially signaled the new electability of the far right. Indeed, the Freedom Party sought to leverage Hofer’s guy-next-door demeanor that seemed to take the bite out of his harshest condemnations, such as that “Islam is not part of Austria.”
Still, while portraying himself as the face of a reformed far-right, he persisted in courting a more extreme base. For instance, he wore a cornflower lapel pin — a symbol of German nationalism also used by the Nazis. Hofer on Sunday called for national unity following his defeat. Yet within his party, the attacks were already flying. The Freedom Party’s powerful chairman, Heinz-Christian Strache, accused Hofer’s opponents of running a “massive fear campaign,” saying Green Party supporters of Van der Bellen had painted Hofer as “a Nazi.”
Faiola eported from Berlin. Stefano Pitrelli in Rome and Stephanie Kirchner in Berlin contributed to this report.