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Europe

Jan 11, 2017

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Beppe Grillo

For those last year who shied away from the label “fascist” for the likes of Donald Trump, the preferred term was “populist”. But a story this week from Europe illustrates just what a range of positions that term can cover.

The story centres on the Five Star Movement (M5S), the Italian party led by former comedian Beppe Grillo. M5S is the largest opposition party in Italy’s parliament, and it is tipped to be a serious contender for power in Italian elections expected this year. It scored a big triumph last month with the defeat of then-Italian PM Matteo Renzi’s constitutional referendum.

Almost invariably, M5S is described as “populist”. It is virulently anti-establishment, constantly railing against the corruption of Italy’s elites. And it shares features with other populist movements, including a resistance to classification in left-right terms and a focus on a high-profile charismatic leader from outside the traditional political class.

When a contingent of M5S members was elected to the European Parliament in 2014, they joined up with the group led by the UK Independence Party, Europe of Freedom and Democracy — renamed “Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy” (EFDD) to align itself with one of M5S’ big concerns. But it was always a slightly odd partnership. M5S never shared most of the traditional right-wing concerns of UKIP and its other allies; it supported same-sex marriage, stayed away from law-and-order issues (except when it came to jailing crooked politicians) and didn’t seem to care much about immigration.

The big bond between Grillo and Nigel Farage was their Euroscepticism. But even that masks a difference: M5S is critical of the EU and wants to take Italy out of the euro, but it is not hostile to the whole idea of European integration in the way UKIP is.

[Spectre of right-wing populism haunts Europe as Italy, Austria went to the polls]

So last week, Grillo decided to bolt. A hastily called online poll of party members endorsed his decision to leave EFDD and link up instead with the liberal group, the Alliance for Liberals and Democrats of Europe (ALDE). The move was widely linked to Grillo’s quest for respectability; one academic quoted by The Guardian suggested “a move on the part of the M5S to become more plausible, to stop scaring voters away with its anti-Europeanism and to appear as a mainstream party that is not going to do anything incredibly stupid”.

For ALDE, the accession of M5S members would have made it the third-largest group in the European Parliament, delivering a boost to ALDE leader Guy Verhofstadt’s campaign to be elected president of the Parliament. And there were some obvious elements of common ground, especially concerning the need for greater transparency and accountability in European institutions.

On the other hand, the differences between M5S and the parties in ALDE, both as to policy and style, were enormous. ALDE is the most pro-European of the parliamentary groups, advocating deeper fiscal and political integration. And no one would ever accuse ALDE of being populist: its tone is uncompromisingly elitist, almost aristocratic.

In any case, after a day or so for reflection, ALDE dropped the idea, with Verhofstadt saying in a brief statement that “There is insufficient common ground to proceed with the request of the Five Star Movement to join the ALDE Group”. He promised that “on issues of shared interest, such as the environment, transparency and direct democracy,” they would “continue to work closely together”. By yesterday, Farage was welcoming M5S back to his group, saying that their “differences … have been resolved in an amicable manner”.

But whether or not the fiasco harms M5S’ prospects, it highlights an issue that is not going to go away.

Populist parties and candidates typically represent themselves as outsiders, coming from nowhere and aiming to sweep away the baggage of “the system” — to “drain the swamp”, as one prominent populist would have it. But when they have electoral success, they enter into political structures where, in order to get anything done, they have to work, however fleetingly, with established actors. Most of the time, they do a poor job of it.

[Liberte, egalite, and a firm ‘non’ to Trumpism]

Hence the typically short shelf-life of populist parties. A charismatic leader secures the election of a tranche of inexperienced members who know little about government and are ill-disposed to listen to anyone who could teach them. Soon they are lost in the process, fighting among themselves, distracted by side issues or seduced by the temptations of minor office. Those that survive to the next election are unceremoniously evicted by the voters, often in favor of a new set who start the cycle over again. Our own Pauline Hanson and Clive Palmer have given vivid illustrations.

But even populists who cling onto some share of power need to answer important questions. Grillo’s oscillation between philosophical opposites shows the difficulty that they face. Having told their supporters that the old dichotomies are obsolete, they find that, in reality, they have to choose sides on a host of traditional but important questions — left v right, integration v isolation, free trade v protection, and so on. Whichever way they choose, many will be disappointed and angry.

Unless Trump can somehow manage to square the circle, his supporters are headed for disillusionment.

Europe

Dec 6, 2016

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Austrian President-Elect Alexander Van der Bellen

Two European countries went to the polls on Sunday. Neither was electing a government, but both were closely watched for signs of not just their own future, but that of the European Union as a whole.

The result from Austria has been taken unequivocally as good news. Alexander Van der Bellen, a former Greens leader, defeated Norbert Hofer, of the far-right Freedom Party, in the second round of the country’s presidential election.

When the election was originally held, in May, Van der Bellen scraped in with 50.3% of the vote, but that result was annulled due to various small irregularities. In Sunday’s re-run, somewhat against expectations, he improved his performance to 51.7%. Postal votes are expected to bring that up to around 53%.

Still, when you’re running against a serious neo-fascist, 53% is nothing to write home about. Like many other signs this year, particularly last month’s US election, it warns of a rising tide of xenophobic right-wing populism.

Austria is near the front line of Europe’s response to the Middle Eastern refugee crisis (as Metternich said, Asia begins on the road east from Vienna), and Hofer’s fiercely anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim stance was seen as his biggest strength. Van der Bellen (himself the son of refugees) stressed, by contrast, themes of humanity, democracy and European integration.

But as with the US, the real story is not the independent strength of the far right, but the way that the centre-right rallied to it. Hofer had 35.1% of the vote in the first round; to get as close as he did, he must have attracted most of the support of the centre-right candidate, Andreas Khol, who was eliminated with 11.1%.

Just as mainstream Republicans, despite their dislike of Donald Trump, could not bring themselves to support a Democrat, so it looks as if moderate centre-right voters in Austria could not abide the thought of a Green president, regardless of the alternative.

It’s also important to remember that Austria’s presidency is mostly a ceremonial position, so many voters may have felt free to indulge a protest vote. But the symbolism of having an elected head of state from the far right — and in Austria of all places, which still stirs memories of the 1930s — would have been profound.

The other country voting on Sunday was Italy, where centre-left Prime Minister Matteo Renzi had put a package of constitutional changes to referendum and promised to treat the result as a vote of confidence.

The move backfired badly. The referendum was decisively defeated, with a “no” vote of 59.1%. Renzi promptly announced his resignation, which will take effect in the next few days after the government’s budget has been passed.

It’s not at all clear what will happen next; Renzi’s coalition may attempt to carry on without him until scheduled elections in early 2018. But it’s more likely that the country will go to the polls next year — meaning that the big three remaining EU countries (Germany, France and Italy) will all have elections in the same year.

Italy’s opposition is a mixed bag: there’s the populist and Eurosceptic Five Star Movement, led by comedian Beppe Grillo; the anti-immigrant and quasi-separatist Northern League; Forza Italia, the vehicle of convicted fraudster and three-time prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, seen by many as the prototype for Trump; plus more traditional neo-fascists and far-left groups.

Even if they won a majority between them, it’s hard to see how a coherent government could emerge. It’s also uncertain what the electoral system will look like, since the outgoing government has promised changes to try to avoid the prolonged uncertainty that followed the 2013 election.

Renzi’s constitutional changes, had they been passed, would have had two main components: the evisceration of the Senate, turning it into a small and toothless house of review appointed by the regions in place of the current powerful elected body, and the abolition of the provinces, an intermediate level of government between regions and municipalities.

The idea was to streamline the process of government, making it easier to pass the sort of reforms that might overhaul Italy’s stagnant economy. But with authoritarian populism on the rise, this was not necessarily the best time to be dismantling safeguards (originally designed against a return of fascism) and allowing government to be less representative and less accountable.

Hence what I call the authoritarian paradox: the forces that were most eager to defeat Renzi’s reformist and pro-European government were the very same forces that could make the most disturbing use of a more “efficient” constitution with fewer checks and balances.

One hopes that the centre-left will learn the lesson, and that the next reform package will be something that the forces of democracy can support unequivocally.

Politics

Mar 4, 2014

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Matteo Renzi — known as the “Italian Fonz” — holds a record among the 28 members of the European community: at 39, he is the youngest-serving European prime minister. He is also the youngest premier in Italian history, beating Giovanni Goria, who was elected in 1996 at the age of 43.

Just a year older than Renzi is Joseph Muscat, Malta’s PM, who turned 40 last month. Other baby-faced leaders include Luxemburg’s PM Xavier Bettel, 41, and Romanian leader Victor Ponta, 42. The big kid in the class is United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron, now 47, who became PM at the age 43.

But Renzi is not even among the top five youngest state leaders in the world.

Kim Jong-un, Supreme Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, is the leader of the pack. Kim, recently accused by the UN for violation of human rights, is currently the youngest serving leader at the age of 31. He was 28 when he became de facto leader after his father’s death in 2011.

Close behind is Irakli Garibashvili (pictured), Prime Minister of Georgia. Garibashvili, who now wants to join the EU and NATO and shake off Russia’s shackles, was born in 1982 and became premier in 2013.

In third place is Qatar’s Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. The Sanhurst-educated-33-year-old is the head of the richest country in the world.

Princes, sheikhs and royals in general are most likely to win power at a young age. That’s the case for Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, King of Bhutan since 2006 and now 34 but only 26 when he first sat on the throne.

The world’s fifth-youngest leader is Kosovo’s President Atifete Jahjaga, 38, who is the only women in the list. Jahjaga became president of the Republic of Kosovo on April 7, 2011, after a long career in the police force.

Just outside the EU boarders, in Iceland, there is Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson, who gets the sixth position. He is only three months younger than the Italian Democratic Party leader. Gunnlaugsson was born on March 12, 1975, so he will turn 39 next month.

Renzi is not the youngest-ever European prime minister — that honour goes to William Pitt the Younger, who became UK prime minister in 1783 at the age of 24 — but he is the youngest since the formation of the European Union in 1993.

Then there’s the ancient teenage leaders: Bhutanese king Jigme Singye Wangchuck assumed power in 1972 at the tender age of 16; twenty years before, at the same age, Hussein I was proclaimed king of Jordan.

How young is too young to lead a country? The United States has a law prohibiting anyone under 35 from becoming president. Theodore Roosevelt remains the youngest president — 42 at his inauguration — followed by John F. Kennedy (43) and Bill Clinton (46).

Media

Feb 24, 2014

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Oz exclusive watch (just kidding, Chris). It’s Monday, and that means it’s media day at The Australian and the Australian Financial Review. The Oz has a new media editor, after former editor Nick Leys turned ABC spinner. The section, now under Sharri Markson, has scored not one but two exclusive interviews with News Corp chiefs this week (one with Oz editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell and another with News Corp chief executive Julian Clarke). In this sense, Markson’s wholly outdone The Fin, whose media section can boast only one interview with a Fairfax executive (chief Greg Hywood on scrapping cross-media ownership laws).

The video interview with Mitchell is worth watching (even if the questions are predictably soft). “Much of the driver for us is exclusive news. I’m regularly criticised on Crikey for the number of red exclusives, but they are quite important to driving digital subscriptions,” Mitchell told Markson. She then revealed the Oz managed to more than double its digital subscriptions the day it broke the ABC salary yarn. Mitchell described it as “our most successful day apart from the day we launched the paywall”.

Speaking to your own boss is hardly brilliant journalism, but when those bosses control much of the media in the country, at least it’s relevant. Which is why we were surprised a revelation that Labor MP Tony Burke is now in a relationship with former chief of staff Skye Laris not only led Media Diary, it got promoted on the front page of the Oz, too. The only tenuous connection to media: Laris used to work in former South Australian premier Mike Rann’s media unit. — Myriam Robin

Boy wonder. Italy has a new Prime Minister — 39-year-old former Florence mayor Matteo Renzi. Public opinion on Italy’s youngest-ever PM is divided, if the local media is anything to go by. State-owned broadcaster RaiNews and Turin-based newspaper La Stampa are reporting that most people are happy with the result of the elections (with the latter calling him “enthusiastic, funny and ambitious”), while Left-leaning websites Libero Quotidiano and L’Infiltrato are less complimentary. Libero Quotidiano has highlighted the fact that Renzi got the top job without doing time as a member of Parliament first, and L’Infiltrato accuses Renzi of being supported by powerful (and rich) people who want to get rid of the Left wing of politics. — Luca Zuccaro

Front page of the day. And that’s a wrap …

Europe

Feb 24, 2014

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Matteo Renzi

Matteo Renzi (pictured) looked like a smug schoolboy as he and his new cabinet were sworn in by Giorgio Napolitano, a president more than twice his age, under the elegant chandeliers and frescoes of the Quirinale Palace.

Dwarfed by the grandeur of the 16th-century palace, which has housed popes, kings and presidents, Italy’s youngest ever prime minister couldn’t stop smiling on Saturday as he formally assumed the position he has always wanted. But the brash 39-year-old — who has promised to overhaul the Italian economy and transform the political landscape — is well aware of the massive job ahead.

“Tough and difficult task,” was how the former Florence mayor described his new job on a tweet on the way into the palace. “But we are Italy, we can do it.”

It’s been just over a week since the secretary of the centre-Left Democratic Party ousted Enrico Letta in a party coup. Letta barely looked at his successor when they met for a chilly official handover after Renzi was sworn in. Out on the streets Italians are still reeling from watching their third unelected prime minister appointed in three years and questioning whether this is democracy.

“My friends say this is not a democratically elected government. But what are we going to do — hold elections every six months?” said Danny, a waiter who works in a cafe just down the hill from the presidential palace in the heart of Rome. “I think we have to be positive — for the first time we have a politician who is not 105 years old.”

Barista Michele Galasso says nothing will change. “He’s just like all the others, we are only changing the name,” he said.

Renzi is known as the “Rottamatore”, or the demolition man, for his desire to smash the political establishment and has made no secret of his admiration for former British PM Tony Blair. But the energetic boy scout leader and one-time winner of Wheel of Fortune is not a member of Parliament and has no national political experience.

“Being outside the political establishment has been a big advantage for Renzi as a campaigner and someone who has always cast himself as an outsider who will come in to clean things up,” said Dr Duncan McDonnell, a research fellow at the European University Institute in Florence. “But now he will have to deal on a daily basis with the intricacies of Parliament, the civil service and the state in all its Baroque glory, he may find the lack of experience to be a handicap.”

Renzi is certainly ambitious, last week outlining a plan for fast-tracked financial and political reform to reshape the country in his first few months in office. “By the end of February I will prepare an urgent timetable on constitutional and electoral reforms to bring to the attention of the Parliament,” he said.

To make that happen Renzi will be relying on the loyalty of his coalition partner, Angelino Alfano, head of the New Centre Right party he founded when he broke away from centre-right former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi last year.

Alfano forged a workable alliance with Letta and has kept the powerful interior ministry and two other portfolios for his colleagues in the new coalition government.

Renzi has said he would seek to achieve one major reform every month until May, starting with a new election law, and was accused of betraying the Left when he recently met Berlusconi to discuss it. Berlusconi still heads his centre-right Forza Italia party, and many are furious about the billionaire tycoon’s continuing clout.

“The government is their private affair, Berlusconi-Renzi, and it is hidden from the public. They consulted for six minutes on what? To decide what?” said comedian-turned-politician Beppe Grillo, who heads the radical Five Star Movement.

Grillo’s unrelenting criticism has struck a chord with disaffected voters who are sick and tired of a political class they believe is more concerned with their own survival than the concerns of the people. The economy is struggling to emerge from its worst recession since World War II, and unemployment is running at 12.7% .

“He’s done a deal with Berlusconi, nothing will change,” said Marco, who sells fruit and vegetables in Piazza San Cosimato in Rome. And another vendor: “Who knows how long it will last?”

Renzi should have no trouble winning a confidence vote in the Parliament this week. But Italians are already questioning the longevity of the new government.

“He’s like one of those professional poker players in whose ability others trust and invest their money,” wrote Angelo Panebianco, in the Italian daily Corriere della Sera. “Now the time has come to see his cards. If the score is good, everyone will benefit. If it’s only a bluff, it will be poor old us.”

Europe

Feb 14, 2014

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Two months ago, Italy’s main centre-left party, the Democratic Party, elected a new leader: Matteo Renzi, the young (then 38) mayor of Florence, who has a strong reputation as a centrist and a moderniser. He is said to regard former British prime minister Tony Blair as a role model.

The odd thing about this was that although his party was in government, Renzi did not thereby become prime minister. Enrico Letta remained in the top job, at the head of an unwieldy grand coalition formed after last year’s indecisive election. This was never likely to work as a long-term arrangement.

Now, sooner rather than later, Renzi has made his move. Yesterday, the Democratic Party’s leadership committee voted to support a change of government. Letta, having earlier resisted the idea, conceded defeat, announcing that he would present his resignation today to Italian President Giorgio Napolitano.

As Le Monde‘s correspondent Philippe Ridet put it, it was “concise, surgical and even cruel”.

No one regards Letta’s government as having been much of a success. Although there are modest signs of improvement, Italy’s economy remains in dire condition. The The Guardian reports “more than 41% of young people out of work, and a public debt of more than €2 trillion”. If a lack of dynamism at the top was the problem, then Renzi — whom Ridet refers to as a “high-speed train” — can be expected to make quite a difference.

But the problem is that the change is only likely to happen at the top. Renzi will still depend on the same ramshackle coalition as Letta did: not so much in the lower house, where the Democratic Party has a majority in its own right (courtesy of the electoral system), but in the powerful Senate, where it depends on a collection of centrists, local autonomists and a breakaway centre-right party.

Angelino Alfano, leader of the New Centre-Right party, has already served notice that his support cannot be taken for granted — he wants an assurance that Renzi won’t try to hang on for the full term of Parliament, until 2018 (an unlikely prospect), and warns against the government moving to the Left.

On the other hand, being too far to the Left has certainly not been thought to be Renzi’s problem — quite the opposite. In a party still deeply divided between ex-communists and ex-Christian-Democrats, he (like Letta) represents the moderate wing; his major difficulty is probably going to be getting any serious economic reform program past his party’s leftists.

Moreover, it’s not just economic reform that Italy needs. There’s general agreement on a need to do something about the recurring political deadlock, but electoral reform remains a very large can of worms. Opportunities in politics have to be seized when they arise, and Renzi is clearly an ambitious man, but even he must have doubts about the magnitude of the task he’s taken on.

Full marks at this point to the BBC, which managed to produce a whole report on the changeover without mentioning the name of Silvio Berlusconi. Unfortunately, “Il Cavaliere” cannot be dismissed quite so easily. Although out of Parliament, he remains leader of the largest centre-right group, Forza Italia, and his in-principle agreement last month with Renzi on electoral reform was a major step in sidelining Letta.

Forza Italia is still in opposition, but ideologically it is probably closer to the Democratic Party than Alfano’s group. That might give Renzi some additional options, but also some additional headaches: nothing is likely to alienate his own Left wing more than an accord with Berlusconi.

Italy’s distinctive political history — long years as effectively a one-party state, followed by dramatic fragmentation of the party system in the 1990s — continues to cast a long shadow. It’s now in a chicken-and-egg situation: electoral reform may (or may not) produce greater stability, but a measure of stability is necessary to get it (or any other reform) approved in the first place.

Matteo Renzi might be the man to break out of this circle, but he will need a lot of luck.