As 2016 draws to a close after Brexit in the U.K. and the election of Donald Trump in the U.S., it is tempting to label it the Year of Resurgent Nationalism. Yet in its dying gasp the global season of elections has produced two surprise results, in Austria and Italy, which give pause. Last weekend Austria rejected far-right candidate Norbert Hofer in its presidential election, instead placing confidence in Alexander Van der Bellen, a former leader of the Green Party who has said he would be an “open-minded, liberal-minded and above all a pro-European president.” In Italy a more mixed result was delivered, with voters resoundingly defeating a referendum driven by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi to change Italy’s constitution by reducing the numbers and power of the Senate. While some in Italy’s political right have seized upon the result as a big victory for anti-establishment forces, the vote defies the simplistic narrative of a “populist revolt against globalisation and elites” that has been applied elsewhere. It is evident that the focus of the vote was Mr. Renzi’s own record in office and the relative merits of the constitutional reforms he was proposing, which also explains why he resigned. The debates leading up to the vote, similarly, hardly touched upon burning issues such as immigration writ large in Britain or America. Instead they thrashed out questions on the potential of the reforms to be anti-democratic and capable of altering in-built constitutional checks and balances.
Despite the election outcomes in Europe being at odds with the broader global surge in pro-majoritarian national politics, there is one common thread that binds the two: a hatefully bitter polarisation of the electorate of each country. In Italy, while the opposition to Mr. Renzi’s plans came from mainstream political figures, including members of his Democratic Party, former prime ministers and academics and judges, the far right Northern League and the Five Star Movement left an indelible mark on the No campaign. These groups and their anti-immigrant rhetoric have thus received a boost. In Austria the flip side of Mr. Van der Bellen’s win was that Mr. Hofer’s Freedom Party managed to pull in some 2.2 million votes despite standing stoutly against the Social Democrats, the Popular Party and the Green Party, besides several among the establishment media. The fact that French far-right leader Marine Le Pen assured Mr. Hofer that he would win the next legislative election is a signal of confidence in the power of the rising anti-establishment mood. As the divide between “elites” and “the forgotten man and woman” widens, the need to rethink liberal politics has become imperative.
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