A Tale of Two Cities: Vienna and Rome in the Brexit-Trump Era

The Brexit-Trump Factor in Europe

As Charles Dickens would have put it, after the day of Sunday, December 4, 2016 “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times” for the cities of Vienna and Rome. The presidential re-run in Austria and the constitutional referendum in Italy have been expected to be a confirmation (or not) of the Brexit-Trump factor. As it turned out, it was a day with some bad news and some good news.

Austria

Presidential elections in Austria are held once every six years, under a two-round system, and the president is directly elected. Incumbent president Heinz Fischer (Social Democratic Party/SPO, center-left) had served two terms and was not eligible for a third successive term.

On April 24, 2016, in the first round of the elections, Norbert Hofer (Freedom Party of Austria/FPO, right-wing populist) received the most votes, but under 50%, and Alexander Van der Bellen, a former SPO member (The Greens/DG, left), placed second. On May 22, in the second round run-off, Van der Bellen defeated Hofer after the postal ballots were counted.

The results were challenged and the Constitutional Court of Austria found that almost 78,000 absentee votes were improperly counted too early. The Court annulled the results, and planned a re-vote of the second round on October 2, which was eventually postponed to December 4.

On December 4, the voter turnout was estimated to be 74.1% and Van der Bellen was in the lead with 53.3% of votes, with Hofer second with 46.7% of votes. Hofer conceded the race to Van der Bellen in an election with a troubled history, which was called “a blow to the populist movement.” Although Hofer was not specifically for the country’s exit from the European Union, his opponent was perceived as a better choice for the Austrians, who support EU membership in “an overwhelming majority.”

Hofer’s victory would have been considered “of the same magnitude as Britain’s vote for Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as US president last month.”

In spite of his defeat (at a narrow margin at almost 47%), Hofer said that his party is “now in pole position for the parliamentary elections in 2018” and promised that he would run again for the next presidential elections, planned to be held in 2022.

Anyhow, Austria (where immigration has been a top issue) was a close call from the Brexit-Trump hot wave.

As a result of a snap election in October 2017, a new government between the Austrian People’s Party (OVP, center-right, 31.5% of votes, with a new young leader, Sebastian Kurz) and the Freedom Party of Austria (FPO, right-wing populist, 26% of votes) under the new chancellor Kurz was sworn in on December 18, 2017.

Sebastian Kurz is a burka ban supporter and backed Trump’s border wall.

Italy

On April 8, 2014 the Prime Minister Matteo Renzi (Democratic Party/PD, center-left) introduced a bill in the Senate that amended the Italian Constitution, with the aim of reforming the composition and powers of the Parliament (the bill reduced number of Parliament members, the role of the Senate and the Regions). The bill was eventually approved by Senate on January 20, 2016, and Chamber on April 12, 2016. According to the Article 138 of the Italian Constitution, because the amendment failed to be approved by a majority of two-thirds in each house of Parliament, it would become law if it received the support of a majority of votes cast in a national referendum.

If approved by referendum, the constitutional amendment would have achieved the most extensive reform – in terms of enlarging the government powers – since the end of monarchy (in 1946). Also, this was the third constitutional referendum in the history of the Italian Republic. Previously, there were referenda in 2001 (approving the amending law) and 2006 (rejecting the amending law).

Matteo Renzi, the youngest Italian prime minister (nominated in 2014, when he was just 39), regarded by some of being too arrogant, was confident in the Parliamentary support of his agenda, and put a personal spin on the referendum (popularly called “Renzirendum”), claiming that he would resign in case of a negative vote.

The referendum was a major blow to his policies. Around 60% of the Italians voted “No,” Renzi conceded defeat on December 5, before official results were announced, and he announced his resignation.

The leaders of the main opposition parties, the Five Star Movement/M5S, populist, and the Northern League/LN, regionalist), called for immediate elections.

President Sergio Mattarella (also PD) opted for a care-taker government (of the same PD) until the 2018 elections, in order to prevent a financial earthquake.

After Renzi’s defeat, the euro dropped.

However, the euro’s drop was not as far as the British pound after the Brexit result.

And so, Italy, the third EU economy (where unemployment and immigration have been the top issues), has become the first European country hit by the effect of the Brexit-Trump hot wave.

The parliamentary elections of March 5, 2018 marked a surge of the anti-European Union populist and right-wing parties. The anti-establishment populist Five Star Movement captured over 32% of votes and the right-wing coalition won 36% of votes (the far right anti-immigration League – formerly the Northern League, with almost 18%, the center-right; Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right Forza Italia, with 14%, and the radical right Fratelli d’Italia party, with over 4%).

Matteo Salvini, the League’s leader, is a known Trump admirer and a fan of Putin.

The center-left Democratic Party (whose Paolo Gentiloni government is currently in power), scored a disappointing 19% of votes.

With no clear majority, the election is expected to produce a hung Parliament and long negotiations to form a new government.

 

NOTE – A version of the article was published previously in EPOCH TIMES.

 

Tiberiu Dianu has published several books and a host of articles in law, politics, and post-communist societies. He currently lives and works in Washington, DC, and can be followed on MEDIUM.

 

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