Italy, Austria and the authoritarian dilemma

Two European countries go to the polls tonight: Italy in an important constitutional referendum, and Austria in a presidential election. Both raise questions for our newly dangerous world.

Italy’s centre-left prime minister, Matteo Renzi, is following through on a promise to try to modernise various features of Italy’s constitution, with a view to making reform easier. The two main proposed changes are the evisceration of the Senate, which would become 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.

Renzi has made the referendum an issue of confidence, promising to resign if it is defeated – a move that would almost certainly lead to early elections (otherwise due in March 2018). As the opinion polls have turned bad he has visibly cooled on that idea, but even if he fails to follow through it would clearly produce a major political crisis.

And defeat now looks overwhelmingly likely: the “no” margin in the polls (summarised by Wikipedia) is not large, but it’s very consistent. Moreover, this is a classic of the sort of referendum where the late deciders tend to vote against; complex change, a lot to understand, and an opportunity to deliver an anti-government protest.

The paradox, however, is this: a no vote would weaken, probably fatally, a moderate, pro-European centre-left government, and risk starting a process that could end by giving power to some combination of the far-right Northern League, the Eurosceptic populist Five-Star Movement, and the elderly erratic proto-Trump Silvio Berlusconi.

But a yes vote would weaken some of the very checks and balances that protect Italy against authoritarianism. The country’s sclerotic political system was designed with the lessons of the fascist era very much in mind; it is supposed to prevent a return to dictatorship. Some of those safeguards may have outlived their usefulness, but if a shift towards populist and/or authoritarian government is on the way, perhaps this is not the best time to be pruning them.

There’s certainly a good case for scaling back the Senate’s powers; no other major democracy requires a vote of confidence in both houses before a government can take office. But is it really necessary in the circumstances to completely remove its ability to check a rogue government?

It depends on what you think Europe’s biggest problem is. When Renzi came to power almost three years ago it was easy to believe that the biggest threat came from economic underperformance, and therefore that institutional structures needed to be streamlined to allow governments to deal with it.

The events of the last year, however, suggest that the more serious problems are political, and that changes that allow governments to be less representative and less accountable are going in precisely the wrong direction.

Probably the best to hope for is that a “no” vote will lead to a reconstruction of the Renzi government in a form that can then seek a fresh mandate for more modest reform.

If the referendum poses a dilemma for Italy’s political class in general, the Austrian presidential election is a problem more specifically for the centre-right.

In the long delayed rerun of the second round, Greens veteran Alexander Van der Bellen faces Norbert Hofer, of the far-right Freedom Party. When it was run the first time, back in May, Van der Bellen squeaked in with 50.3%, but that vote was subsequently annulled due to irregularities in postal votes. In the first round, Hofer had led comfortably out of six candidates with 35.1%.

If it had been a centre-right candidate who made the runoff against the far right – the sort of dynamic we’ve been talking about in France – we know what would happen; centre-left voters would turn out in large numbers to oppose the far right, and the centre-right candidate would win a landslide. But instead it is centre-right voters who are being put on the spot.

And it’s clear from the vote in May as well as subsequent opinion polls that the large majority of them are going to vote for Hofer, putting tribal hatreds ahead of the defence of democracy.

There’s a strong parallel here with last month’s victory of Donald Trump; in each case, mainstream centre-right voters support someone whose values are quite alien to theirs because the alternative, of rallying to the left, has become unthinkable.

If Van der Bellen does manage to win again, it will be only by the skin of his teeth: polls consistently show him neck and neck with Hofer. And in this case it is not at all clear which way late deciders might break: is there an element of protest vote in poll support for Hofer, or are there “silent fascists” who will vote for him without admitting it to pollsters?

Either way, the effect is largely symbolic; the presidency is a mostly ceremonial position, and Austria is not a major player on the scale of Italy or France. But the symbolism of a neo-fascist president would nonetheless be deeply troubling.

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