Italy's Five Star Movement has crushed a PM. It shouldn't be ignoredby Bill Emmott / December 12, 2016 / Leave a comment
The long, slow fuse on Italy’s time-bomb has been lit. The crushing defeat of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s constitutional reform proposals in the national referendum on 4th December has left the whole country—indeed the whole of Europe—wondering whether the anti-euro Five Star Movement might soon come to national power.
Five Star, the internet-based political party led from outside parliament by the comedian Beppe Grillo, is frequently described as populist, but it is cut from quite different cloth from France’s Front National, Britain’s Ukip or even US President-Elect Donald Trump. While those have got their core support from older, non-college-educated, often working-class voters, Five Star’s base is young, university educated and professional.
That is exactly the group that Renzi sought to appeal to when he landed suddenly on the national stage in 2013, when he decided to hurry from his base as mayor of Florence and compete first for his Democratic Party’s leadership and then prime ministership following the inconclusive general election of February that year.
He won his prize in February 2014 through a coup in his centre-left party through which he ousted his colleague, the incumbent prime minister, Enrico Letta. He did so largely on the twin arguments that he could credibly offer the country radical reform, under his self-anointed nickname of il Rottamatore, the demolition man; and that, at 38, as the country’s youngest prime minister since unification in 1861 he could symbolise change and appeal to young, university-educated professionals like him.
So he presented himself as Italy’s insurgent change-maker. Trouble is, he largely failed to bring change, at least the sort of change that Italians could feel in their lives and their incomes. The economy has barely grown during his nearly three years in office. Unemployment is stuck at 11.7 per cent of the workforce. Ambitious young people are still emigrating to find opportunities. The justice system remains a national disgrace.
The reforms he did bring—for schools, for labour contracts, some minor tax changes—will only produce detectable results after a delay. Meanwhile, he made two huge mistakes: he shied away from calling a general election when he was popular in 2014, and so had…