Italian premier quits after defeat

CLOSE CALL: Austria’s Norbert Hofer with his wife, Verena, following his narrow presidential race defeat. Picture: AFP
CLOSE CALL: Austria’s Norbert Hofer with his wife, Verena, following his narrow presidential race defeat. Picture: AFP

Delight of Europe populists tempered by Hofer failing in Austrian election

Europe’s populists have greeted with glee the demise of Italy’s premier, but their enthusiasm was tempered by the failure of Austria’s Norbert Hofer to become the European Union’s first far-right president.

Topping off a year that saw the shock election of Donald Trump as US president and Britain’s decision to leave the EU, Italy’s Matteo Renzi quit after a crushing referendum defeat.

“My experience of government finishes here,” he said.

Many mainstream politicians were uneasy about Renzi’s proposed constitutional reforms, while Italians fed up with the economy saw the vote as a chance to ditch him.

But it was also a victory for Italy’s xenophobic Northern League and the anti-establishment Five Star movement, whose leader Beppe Grillo hailed Trump’s win as a “massive screw you”.

Grillo, who supports a referendum on Italy leaving thee uro zone, has demanded that elections be called within a week.

Anti-establishment figures across Europe, both on the left and the right, hailed Renzi’s demise.

The result “adds another people to the list of those wanting to turn their backs on Europe’s absurd policies [that are] plunging the continent into misery,” Marine le Pen, of the far-right National Front, said.

She is expected to make it into the runoff in France’s presidential election in May.

Brexit figurehead Nigel Farage tweeted that the “vote looks to me to be more about the euro than constitutional change”.

Far-right Dutch MP Geert Wilders, topping polls ahead of elections in March, tweeted: “Congratulations Italia!” Centre-left German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Stein Steinmeier said Renzi’s demise was not a positive message to Europe at a difficult time.

Meanwhile, mainstream politicians reacted with relief to Hofer’s failing to become the EU’s first far-right president.

Hofer, like populists elsewhere, had stoked concerns about immigration and globalisation, vowing to “get rid of the dusty establishment” and fight “Brussels centralising power”.

Experts said the winner, ex-Greens chief Alexander vander Bellen, exploited Hofer’s ambivalent stance on Austria’s EU membership in the wake of Brexit.

“Trump and Brexit had a re -verse effect in Austria,” Carnegiescholar Stefan Lehne said.

“The idea of Austria’s possible EU exit scared them and made them choose a candidate who is not from the establishment per se but mainstream and more pro-European.”

European Parliament president Martin Schulz tweeted that the result was a “heavy defeat of nationalism and anti-European, backward-looking populism”.

French President Francois Hollande said Austrians “chose Europe and open-mindedness”.

But Hofer came close, winning 46.7% of the vote in the best ever national result for his Freedom Party after a bitter and polarising 11-month race.

Hofer said he would stand as an MP in the next election and run again for the presidency – a largely ceremonial but highly coveted position – again in AFP 2022.

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