Thursday, December 29, 2016

Italy’s Operation Fear Failed

Matteo Renzi’s referendum gamble was a huge error of judgement – but the result offers hope for Italian democracy

The banks were going to collapse. The country would exit from the euro single currency. The PM and his government would fall and political chaos was inevitable.

Operation Fear was running at full throttle in the long build-up to Italy’s constitutional referendum vote on Sunday 4 December.

In the end Italians kept their nerve and resoundingly rejected the proposed changes that they believed were a frontal attack on democracy, enshrined the Italian constitution.

The meteoric career of Matteo Renzi, who assumed power in February 2014 as the fresh-faced Twitter-friendly leader of the Democrats, may well be finished.

He had foolishly staked his premiership on the outcome of the vote, but his wrongly assumed that his youth — he’s the youngest Italian PM ever — and “reforming” credentials, among which deregulation of the labour market to make it easier to hire and fire, would be an asset. And he is now paying the price. As the results came through late on Sunday night, he announced he would resign.

Like the EU referendum in Britain and the recent US elections, this wasn’t supposed to be the outcome.

The changes to the constitution — curtailing the powers of the Senate in order to subordinate it to the lower house — were designed to speed legislation so that the neoliberal “reforms” he’s been championing could be rapidly implemented, without opposition, to meet the demands of big business, the bankers and the political-bureaucratic elite at home, and in Brussels, Berlin and Washington.

But interventions by Barack Obama and other high-ranking foreigners did not help. Nor did near universal local media backing, or vast funds spent on the Yes campaign compared to the No camp. They may have had the opposite effect.

Somehow, Renzi managed to create an opposition to his constitutional proposals that ranged from far left to extreme right. The international business press were early cheerleaders for the changes but as Renzi’s likely failure became clear the tune changed.

In a leader article on November 26, the Economist argued that “Italians should not be blackmailed.” It noted: “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.”

Furthermore, the Economist noted: “Members of the Senate would be picked from regional lawmakers and mayors by regional assemblies. Regions and municipalities are the most corrupt layers of government, and senators would enjoy immunity from prosecution. That could make the Senate a magnet for Italy’s seediest politicians.”

But the main problem the weekly magazine identified was that these changes would do nothing to deal the resistance of the people of Italy to “reform” — just like in France, whose enhanced stronger executive Renzi was trying to ape.

What the business papers and indeed the liberal press in general mean by “reform” is not what the word until recently was understood to mean.

By reform they mean regression — on social, economic and political matters. They mean give even more power to corporations to control people and their lives. And that’s why so many Italians — and above all the “left behind,” the people of the south and the young — voted to protect their constitution.

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