Austrians Elect Left-Wing President, Italians Vote Renzi Out

Analysis and commentary from the Atlantic Sentinel about two pivotal elections in Europe.

Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi and Austrian presidential candidates Alexander Van der Bellen and Norbert Hofer
Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi and Austrian presidential candidates Alexander Van der Bellen and Norbert Hofer (Palazzo Chigi/Stefano Sassu/Facebook/FPÖ)
  • Austrians elected the Green party’s Alexander Van der Bellen as their next president on Sunday, defeating the nationalist Freedom Party’s Norbert Hofer with 54 to 46 percent support.
  • The election was example of Europe’s blue-red culture war, pitting women and college graduates against men without a university education.
  • Italians rejected constitutional reforms in a referendum on the same day, prompting the center-left prime minister, Matteo Renzi, to resign.
  • Renzi brought defeat on himself by gambling that the referendum would strengthen him politically. Instead, it galvanized the opposition against him.
Nick Ottens Nick Ottens December 4, 201612:01 PM

What is Italy’s referendum about?

Nominally, Italians are asked to approve several constitutional changes today, the most important being a proposed makeover of the Senate. Now a body with equal lawmaking power to the lower chamber of parliament, it would be reduced to an assembly of regional deputies that could no longer block legislation nor send the government home.

The goal is to make Italy more governable. Renzi’s Democratic Party currently has a comfortable majority in the Chamber of Deputies, but right-wing parties won nearly as many Senate seats in the last election, raising the specter of divided government.

The reform bill also contains measures to streamline regional administration.

These issues have been overshadowed, however, by broader questions about Italy’s political future and specifically Renzi’s.

As a result, the polls now put the “no” side ahead whereas “yes” was firmly in the lead eight months ago, when lawmakers approved the constitutional changes.

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens December 4, 201612:03 PM

Renzi brought referendum mess on himself

Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi is seen as his residence in Rome, July 2
Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi is seen as his residence in Rome, July 2 (Palazzo Chigi)

Italy’s referendum is being portrayed as the next battle in the war between populists and the powers that be, but this vote is as much about the culture clash that saw Britons vote for Brexit and Americans elect Donald Trump as it is about Matteo Renzi’s hubris.

The center-left prime minister thought a plebiscite would strengthen him politically. Now it could be his downfall.

Renzi needlessly personalized the constitutional changes by vowing to resign if Italians voted them down. That galvanized the opposition.

The “no” side includes not only the populist Five Star Movement on the left and the anti-immigrant Northern League on the right, both of which are anti-establishment and Euroskeptic; respectable centrists, like former prime minister Mario Monti, and some of Renzi’s critics in the ruling Democratic Party have lined up against the reforms as well, worried that they might leave Italy vulnerable to single-party, one-man rule.

Click here to read more.

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens December 4, 201612:16 PM

What is Austria’s presidential election about?

Austria’s presidential election really is a reflection of the cosmopolitan-nationalist divide we’re seeing across the West.

Alexander Van der Bellen, a Green party man who is backed by the Austrian mainstream, represents the liberal consensus.

Norbert Hofer, the Freedom Party candidate, wants to further limit immigration — even though Austria already has some of the most restrictive immigration laws in the EU — and call a referendum on the Alpine nation’s European Union membership, similar to the one the British held in June.

The two also disagree about the role of president. Hofer has proposed transforming the now-ceremonial office into a more political function. Van der Bellen is critical, however, he has said he would use his power to try to prevent the Freedom Party coming to power if it won the next election, which is due in 2018.

The Freedom Party is polling in first place but far short of a majority. It previously ruled in coalition with the conservative People’s Party from 2000 to 2006, during which time other EU countries limited their diplomatic relations with Vienna in protest.

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens December 4, 201612:48 PM

Drawbacks outweigh benefits of reform

The Economist surprised many of its readers when it sided against the constitutional changes in Italy this week.

The liberal newspaper recognizes that Italy’s peculiar system of “perfect bicameralism” is a recipe for gridlock: laws can bounce back and forth between the lower and upper house for decades.

But the benefits of reform are outweighed by the drawbacks, writes The Economist — “above all the risk that, in seeking to halt the instability that has given Italy 65 governments since 1945, it creates an elected strongman. This in the country that produced Benito Mussolini and Silvio Berlusconi and is worryingly vulnerable to populism.”

A majoritarian system also isn’t necessarily more stable.

Under Renzi’s proposal, the party that wins at least 40 percent of the votes automatically gets a majority of the seats.

Greece uses a similar system. The downside, argue Neophytos Loizides and Iosif Kovras, two political scientists, in The Washington Post, is that it leaves governing parties vulnerable to individual lawmakers, especially during a crisis.

In Greece, the largest parties were over-incentivized to enlist populist figures to maximize their prospects to be the first party and gain the bonus seats. But populist figures are less likely to remain disciplined during crises. Rather than support costly reforms and risk not being reelected, populist lawmakers prefer to cross the floor to either join new parties or side with whoever seems to be in the lead. In Greece, this has led to decisionmaking paralysis and more frequent elections.

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens December 4, 20161:20 PM

Alarm about electoral reform

Electoral reform — which would give a majority of the seats in the lower house to the party that wins at least 40 percent support — isn’t part of the referendum. But given how this is supposed to work in tandem with the weakening of the Senate to make Italy more governable, it’s still part of the discussion.

The Eurasia Group’s Mujtaba Rahman writes for Politico that the change would benefit the populist Five Star Movement. It polls behind the Democratic Party but could prevail in a runoff if right-wing voters prefer it over the center-left.

“This should be cause for alarm,” according Rahman.

Not only are [Five Star] members very inexperienced; they are also ideological populists. With them in power, the trajectory of Italy’s economic policy would suffer greatly. Fiscal policy would become expansionary. No new structural reforms would be likely and important overhauls introduced by Renzi could be undone.

Luigi Scazzieri of the Center for European Reform is less worried. He reports for Prospect magazine that Italy’s constitutional court is due to hear a case on the electoral changes and is likely to demand changes to make the system more proportional.

Such a system would make it even more difficult for a single party to win an outright majority and would mean continued coalition governments, which the Five Star Movement refuses to take part in.

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens December 4, 20161:31 PM

Scazzieri is also sanguine about the possibility that Renzi will step down.

Before calling elections, President Sergio Mattarella could first explore options for a new government. He might even give Renzi a fresh mandate, writes Scazzieri, or — more likely — ask a respected technocrat like economy minister Pier Carlo Padoan to take over.

The three ruling parties — Renzi’s Democrats, Angelino Alfano’s Nuovo Centrodestra and the Union of the Center, which supported Mario Monti for reelection in 2013 — all have a strong incentive to keep the legislature going. Polls suggest they would all lose seats if elections were held.

Former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, languishing at 10 percent in the polls, even seems open to rejoining the government.

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens December 4, 20161:37 PM

Turnout in the Italian referendum was just over 20 percent at noon local time.

The numbers are higher in northern regions, where Renzi’s Democrats tend to perform well, and only around 15 percent in the south, where populists and rightwingers usually do better.

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens December 4, 20162:02 PM

Austrian populists capitalize on discontent

Der Standard, Austria’s main center-left newspaper, laments that polarization in the country has increased and the center cannot hold. The presidential candidates from the christian democratic People’s Party and the left-wing Social Democrats — which have alternated in power since the end of World War II — didn’t even qualify for the runoff.

The reason, according to Der Standard, is that the mainstream parties are out of ideas. “The rise of the populists is not their victory, but rather the defeat of the other parties.”

Another op-ed in the same newspaper argues that Austria is nevertheless doing fairly well. It has high-quality medical care, low income inequality, good schools and a generous safety net.

Dissatisfaction is mounting. Young people are struggling to find work and affordable housing in the cities. Older people fear the cultural and social impact of immigration. But this has more to do with a fear that things will get worse in the future than any real, qualifiable downward trends in the most important parameters of daily life, according to Der Standard.

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens December 4, 20162:37 PM

Blue-red culture war in the Alps

Hohenwerfen Castle in Werfen, Austria, near the German border, August 14, 2015
Hohenwerfen Castle in Werfen, Austria, near the German border, August 14, 2015 (Daniel Parks)

Die Presse, Austria’s center-right newspaper, reports that many of the cleavages of what the Atlantic Sentinel refers to as Europe’s blue-red culture war appear in the presidential election: Hofer, the Freedom Party candidate, is more popular with men and workers without a college education; Van der Bellen receives more votes from women and college graduates.

Similar divides came to light in the American presidential election last month.

How do we heal these divisions?

Click here to read more.

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens December 4, 20163:07 PM

Italians’ sense of national community is eroding

Italy also feels divided. An editorial in La Repubblica argues that the referendum campaign has exposed deep-seated anxieties.

The newspaper’s Mario Calabresi writes that for the first time in a long time, middle-class Italian parents are no longer sure their children will have a better life than them. The social compact has broken down. The center has been hollowed out. The risk, according to Calabresi, is that the very idea of a national community, of shared belonging — which serves as an antidote to fears and selfishness — is eroding.

If populists thrive on the left and the right, it is because they sense society’s fatigue and fears, argues Calabresi; they read the social unrest and give people a way to express their anger and frustration.

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens December 4, 20164:18 PM

Alexander Van der Bellen is on track to win Austria’s presidential election.

Polling stations closed at 5 PM local time. The first projections give Van der Bellen 53.6 percent support against 46.4 percent for Norbert Hofer.

Turnout was almost 74 percent.

We will have to wait a while longer for the first results from Italy. The polls there don’t close until 11 at night. There will be exit polls, though, and the first projections, based on actual voted counted, should be made around 11:30. If the result is close, it may take until 2 or 3 in the morning before we know which side won.

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens December 4, 20164:48 PM

Hofer concedes, Van der Bellen wins Austrian presidency

That was quick. Norbert Hofer has conceded the election to Alexander Van der Bellen.

The Freedom Party candidate writes on Facebook that now is the time to work together. “We are all Austrians, no matter how we voted.”

His campaign manager, Herbert Kickl, is less magnanimous, saying, “The establishment, which pitched in once again to block, to stonewall and to prevent renewal, has won.”

Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache is outraged. “The Greens portrayed Hofer as a Nazi. Such accusations did not come from our side.”

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens December 4, 20166:06 PM

Turnout in Italy stands at 55 percent as of 7 PM local time. Click here to see the full turnout figures for each region.

Boris Ryvkin December 4, 20166:24 PM

Temporary setback for Austria’s Freedom Party

The outcome of Austria’s election is unfortunate for national conservative forces and a huge victory for Brussels and open-borders advocates given Van der Bellen’s politics being even more radical than Angela Merkel’s on the issue.

It will take a few days to dissect what went wrong for Hofer and the Freedom Party between May and today: higher turnout in Vienna, lower turnout in rural districts, last-minute endorsement by the establishment conservatives for Van der Bellen akin to the anti-Front national “Republican front” in France, Van der Bellen’s increasingly shrill rhetoric against Hofer over the last week, something else or a combination of factors.

In the medium term, this may be a temporary setback given the strong support Hofer sustained in this round and the Freedom Party’s prospects for winning a parliamentary majority in the next elections not materially diminished (Van der Bellen’s threat not to seat the nationalists if they were to win should not be discounted).

As others have posted, the Italian referendum is marked by unusually heavy turnout with higher voting in the north of the country versus the south. The outcome could come down to whether the surge comes from Lega Nord-allied voters or richer urban areas like Bologna.

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens December 4, 20166:47 PM

German leaders relieved by Austria’s election result

“The whole of Europe has heaved a sigh of relief,” according to Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the foreign minister and a prominent Social Democrat.

Martin Schulz, the outgoing president of the European Parliament who is expected to lead Steinmeier’s party into the next German election, calls Van der Bellen’s victory a defeat for “nationalism and anti-European, backward-looking populism.”

“The right-wing populists’ celebration is cancelled for now,” tweets Manfred Weber, the Christian Democrat who heads the European People’s Party.

This is a little over the top. Hofer still got 47 percent support. Many center-right Austrians clearly would have preferred a far-right president over one from the center-left and we see the same in other countries: what Jonathan Haidt has calledstatus-quo conservatives” are being lured into an alliance with authoritarians on the right, because they feel progressives are subverting the nation’s traditions and identity so badly that dramatic political action is only way they can stand athwart history anymore yelling “Stop!”

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens December 4, 20167:18 PM

Like Boris, The Guardian‘s Stephanie Kirchgaessner cautions against reading too much into higher turnout in the north of Italy, even if those regions usually vote for Renzi’s Democratic Party in national elections:

While some Renzi strongholds will encourage the prime minister, other cities that back the far-right Northern League, which opposes the reforms, have also come out in full force.

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens December 4, 20168:16 PM

Message to other countries

Austrian presidential candidate Alexander Van der Bellen speaks with voters in Klagenfurt, April 6
Austrian presidential candidate Alexander Van der Bellen speaks with voters in Klagenfurt, April 6 (Facebook)

Alexander Van der Bellen has told a news conference he will be an “openminded, liberal-minded and above all a pro-European president” of Austria, adding that his triumph over the Freedom Party’s Norbert Hofer sent a “message to the capitals of the EU that one can win elections with high European positions.”

Clearly — but this is no time for those of us who are openminded, liberal-minded and pro-European to get complacent.

Van der Bellen nearly lost the first time around, in May, and only won on Sunday by mobilizing the whole Austrian center and left.

Similar coalitions between erstwhile foes — for example, between free-market liberals and social democrats — will be needed to keep the populist-nationalist axis at bay. All the while center-right parties must pry cultural and social conservatives away from the nativist right.

Click here to read more.

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens December 4, 201610:07 PM

Survey puts “no” ahead in Italy as polls close

Polling stations closed across Italy at 11 PM local time.

According to an exit poll conducted by IPR Marketing and the Istituto Piepoli for Rai News, between 54 and 58 percent of Italians voted against the proposed changes to the constitution.

Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who has vowed to step down if that is indeed the outcome, is expected to speak around midnight.

Exit polls don’t have a tremendous track record in Italy. We should start getting projections, based on voted counted, in the next half hour or so.

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens December 4, 201610:29 PM

What happens if Renzi steps down?

Turnout in Italy was 69 percent. Two more exit polls — one conducted by Tecnè for the Mediaset television channel, another by EMG Acqua for La7 — show “no” in the lead.

If a majority of Italians did reject the constitutional reforms and Renzi resigns as promised, the next step would be for President Sergio Mattarella to see if a new government can be formed without calling early elections.

The ruling parties — Democrats on the left, Nuovo Centrodestra on the right and the Union of the Center in the middle — all have an incentive to keep the legislature going. Polls suggest neither would gain if elections were held in the next few months. The populist Five Star Movement and the nativist Northern League would win more seats. An alliance between them is unlikely, but a government led by either one of those parties would put a fright into the European mainstream.

Mattarella could give Renzi a fresh mandate, technically allowing him to keep his word, but that would probably strike many voters as a betrayal. More likely, he would ask a technocrat, like economy minister Pier Carlo Padoan, to take over.

András Tóth-Czifra András Tóth-Czifra December 4, 201610:50 PM

What Austria’s election portends for Germany’s next year

Alexander Van der Bellen’s victory in Austria has been welcomed by the German political establishment from left to the right, with the not-so-surprising exception of the Freedom Party’s German ally, the Alternative for Germany.

Angela Merkel can draw strength from the victory of a candidate who was unabashedly pro-EU. Symbolically, Van der Bellen managed to win in Traiskirchen, the Austrian town with the largest refugee camp, which, in May, voted for Hofer.

It should be noted that the political situation in Germany is different, though.

First, while Van der Bellen was widely seen as the “establishment” candidate due to the support that he got from the traditional parties, he is not a classic establishment politician insomuch as he does not belong to either of Austria’s two major political parties. Merkel, on the other hand, personifies the German political establishment and her opponents build on this.

Second, due to a fundamentally different view on political history, it is unlikely that a party as openly far-right as the Austrian Freedom Party could reach a popularity as high as Hofer’s in Germany.

My conclusion from tonight’s result is that the political upheaval we have seen this year is not a one-way street. While tectonic political changes may feel exciting and welcome to undecided voters who end up supporting far-right or populist causes, the uncertainty that these changes create will feel unpleasant to other undecideds. This may be an important lesson for centrists and liberals as we are closing in on even more crucial elections in Europe next year.

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens December 4, 201611:00 PM

Less than 10 percent of the votes have been reported in Italy, but things aren’t looking good for Prime Minister Renzi: “no” is at nearly 60 percent.

Opposition to the constitutional changes appears to have been concentrated in the poorer south of the country, where Renzi’s liberal agenda is unpopular, as well as in the rural parts of the wealthier north, which is the home of the Northern League.

Click here for live results from the Ministry of Interior.

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens December 4, 201611:15 PM

The opposition in Italy is already declaring victory. Beppe Grillo of the Five Star Movement and Renato Brunetta, the leader of former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party in the lower house, have both called on Renzi to step down.

Matteo Salvini, the leader of the Northern League, is being refreshingly honest about where his allegiances lie tonight, tweeting, “Viva Trump, viva Putin, viva la Le Pen e viva la Lega!

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens December 4, 201611:32 PM

Renzi steps down

Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi answers questions from reporters in Modena, September 17, 2015
Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi answers questions from reporters in Modena, September 17, 2015 (Palazzo Chigi)

Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi has announced his resignation.

With nearly half the votes counted, the “no” side in the referendum is leading with close to 60 percent.

Speaking from the Palazzo Chigi in Rome, Renzi says he takes “full responsibility” for the defeat of constitutional reforms that were designed to make Italy easier to govern.

Click here to read more.

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens December 5, 201612:03 AM

It doesn’t look like we’re going to see more developments in Italy tonight. Two in three polling stations have now reported results and “no” is still in the lead with 60 percent.

We are concluding our live coverage. Thank you for reading the Atlantic Sentinel and good night!