Italy’s prime minister, Matteo Renzi, only 41, once seemed to have solved the riddle of how to survive Europe’s populist, anti-establishment tempest. But with a critical national referendum on Sunday, the populist wave is now threatening to crush him and plunge Italy into a political crisis when the European Union is already reeling.
From Washington to Brussels to Berlin, fears are rising that Italy may be stumbling into its own “Brexit” moment. What should be an inward-looking referendum on whether to overhaul Italy’s ossified political and electoral system has taken on much broader import. Financial analysts warn of a potential banking crisis, and pro-Europe supporters fear that a “no” vote in the referendum could accelerate the populist movement across the European bloc.
Italy is potentially the next domino to fall, partly because of the disillusionment of young voters. They have been swept up by many of the same forces that led peers in Spain and Greece to vote for upstart parties, the British to vote to leave the European Union, and Americans to elect Donald J. Trump. In France, President François Hollande announced on Thursday that he would not seek re-election — another establishment figure succumbing to the political moment.
If Mr. Renzi does step aside, it could open the way for opponents who have threatened to carry the Continent’s fourth-largest economy out of the euro currency zone.
In France, where the far-right National Front has emerged as a force, the youth unemployment rate is around 25 percent. And that looks good compared with Greece and Spain, both with more than 40 percent youth unemployment and strong populist movements.
Italy’s referendum kicks off a momentous electoral year in Europe, where populist parties are expected to do well. On the same day as the Italian vote, Austrians go to the polls to elect a new president, in a race that could install the country’s first right-wing populist head of state since World War II. Support for antiestablishment parties is surging in France and Germany, too, both of which have elections next year.
Mr. Renzi has pledged to resign in the case of a “no” vote, making the ballot effectively a vote of confidence in his government. That has galvanized Mr. Renzi’s opposition. Everyone from union leaders to center-right leader Silvio Berlusconi and former Prime Minister Mario Monti is seizing on the chance to topple Mr. Renzi, a self-styled “Demolition Man” who swept into power in early 2014 with promises to overhaul Italy’s political and economic establishment.
The vote also comes as voters’ patience wears thin waiting for Mr. Renzi’s economic reforms to kick-start an economy that is only 0.5% larger than in 2000 and where nearly half of young people have no jobs.
“Renzi used to be the Demolition Man, and now he’s the man to be demolished,” says Roberto D’Alimonte, professor of politics at Rome’s LUISS University. “He has become the establishment…. Many voters want to use this opportunity to punish him for what he has promised and not delivered.”
Some say Mr. Renzi’s resignation could open the door to a new government headed by the 5 Star Movement, an antiestablishment group that now enjoys nearly 30% of popular support.
Austrian voters could elect the European Union’s first far-right leader in a presidential election on Sunday.
Norbert Hofer of the far-right Freedom Party is running against Alexander Van der Bellen. Van der Bellen is an independent candidate who led The Greens party earlier. Recent public opinion studies have shown the two candidates with about equal support.
Austria held a presidential election in May. Van der Bellen won that election narrowly. But those results were overturned by Austria’s constitutional court because of problems with voting procedures.
Hofer has taken a strong anti-immigration position during his campaign. Earlier in the campaign, he said he might call a referendum on whether Austria should leave the European Union. Hofer also opposes Turkey’s efforts to join the EU and has spoken out against EU attempts to get too much control over individual states.