Lots of political news worth mentioning today.
First, Austria’s second attempt at a presidential runoff produced a victory for left-wing ex-Green candidate Alexander Van der Bellen, with somewhere around 53% of the vote, and a defeat for far right-wing populist Norbert Hofer. The margin was considerably wider than Van der Bellen’s very slim initial runoff victory over Hofer, in May, which was overturned on technicalities thus forcing today’s do-over. The election, as with pretty much all elections in Europe these days, was largely a referendum on right-wing nationalism, and in this case right-wing nationalism lost. It wasn’t really a referendum on Austria’s membership in the EU, like you might be thinking (I know I was), since Hofer hadn’t really campaigned on leaving the EU–though he had campaigned on curbing immigration, and Brussels is probably happy to see Van der Bellen emerge victorious. If Hofer had won he would’ve been the first “far-right” leader of a “Western European” (a category that doesn’t really have anything to do with geography) country since World War II. Coming in the wake of Trump’s election here, Austria’s results suggest that maybe there isn’t an inevitable wave of right wing xenophobic populism that’s about to wash over the whole of the West.
In Italy, though, it seems like Brussels may have suffered a bit of a setback. Italians voted today on a constitutional referendum that would have reduced the size of the Italian Senate from 315 elected members to 100 members selected by regional governors, and would have reduced that body’s overall power to make and pass legislation–leaving the lower house of parliament, the Chamber of Deputies, solely responsible for most lawmaking. This would’ve streamlined the process of passing legislation in the Italian parliament, which had implications particularly in terms of implementing measures to boost Italy’s struggling economy. Italy’s center-left PM, Matteo Renzi, was so invested in passing this referendum that he pledged to resign if it failed to pass…and that may actually have been a mistake, because it turned the vote into a referendum on Renzi’s government. And Renzi lost, big, with projections saying that his preferred “yes” vote barely managed to garner 40% of the vote. And true to his word, Renzi announced his resignation when the results became clear.
Renzi may not have been PM much longer anyway, as the referendum defeat surely will lead to new parliamentary elections in the next few months, and polls have shown his Democratic Party in a close race with Italy’s idiosyncratic Five-Star Movement, which opposed the referendum and argued that its passage would give Renzi substantially more power to govern the country himself (it would have given Renzi more power to pass legislation, but Five-Star exaggerated its arguments in this regard). Five-Star is certainly not a purely right-wing movement, but it is populist, anti-establishment, and skeptical of Italy remaining in the EU. They haven’t called for Italy to leave the union altogether, but they have called for a referendum on whether Italy should remain in the Eurozone, and it’s not clear that the EU would allow a country to leave the latter while remaining in the former (Euro membership is supposed to be a requirement for EU membership, with exceptions only made for countries–like the UK–that would not have joined the EU if it meant joining the Euro). Renzi’s defeat and resignation puts Five-Star in the ascendance, which is not how Brussels was hoping Italy’s vote would go.
If you add up the referendum’s defeat, Renzi’s resignation, the likelihood that this will make it harder for the Italian government to address its economic challenges, and the possibility of a Euroskeptic political party winning the next Italian elections, you get the kind of event that’s tailor-made to send a shock through the global economy. The Euro is already down, and Italian banks in particular may be in for a rough ride, the effects of which of course will be passed on to all of us because capitalism kicks ass. In conclusion, buy gold and bury it in your backyard or something (but not before making a generous donation to keeping this website going, of course!).
Last but not least, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, John Key, resigned today, apparently because his wife asked him to. This seems thin to my cynical American mind, but Key and his wife have been married for over 30 years so I hope he really is just stepping down to spend more time with her. That would be nice. Key will be leaving his posts as PM and as leader of the country’s center-right (I guess?) National Party effective December 12, and will probably be replaced by current finance minister Bill English. I could write more extensively on the implications of Key’s announcement and English’s elevation except that, um, my dog needs to go for a walk, that bathroom tile isn’t going to regrout itself, and also I know nothing whatsoever about New Zealand politics. English seems like he’ll be a step back on LGBT issues, so that’s obviously bad, but more than that I can’t say.