Italians are voting today on constitutional changes that Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has staked his career on. But the vote has become equally a referendum on Italy’s European future, with Euroskeptic movements of all stripes seeking to capitalize on a wave of anti-establishment populism that has swept the West this year.
Consider, via Reuters, this framing of the vote by the head of the right-wing Northern League, Matteo Salvini:
“This ‘No’ vote will also be a ‘No’ vote against the rules and regulations of Europe, which have been disastrous for Italy,” Salvini said, adding that EU austerity measures had shredded the Italian economy. […]
The 43-year-old Salvini said Europe had let Italy down, limiting its ability to salvage its debt-laden banks and doing little to help it deal with an influx of almost half a million migrants over the past three years.
A vocal supporter of U.S. president-elect Donald Trump and a fierce critic of mass immigration, Salvini said he would place quitting the single euro currency at the heart of his election manifesto.
Salvini is hardly the only opponent that Renzi needs to worry about. An even greater challenge comes from the similarly Euroskeptic Five-Star Movement (M5S), an anti-establishment party that has garnered enormous support among Italy’s underemployed, disillusioned youth. Co-opting ideas from both the right and left, the Five-Star Movement has risen from its humble origins as the online brainchild of a shock comedian to become Italy’s most popular opposition party. And it has directed all its energy and resources to advocate a “no” vote on Renzi’s proposed constitutional changes.
In an eerie parallel to our own election, Renzi’s supporters have accused M5S of harnessing a massive online propaganda apparatus to spread misinformation with a decidedly Euroskeptic, pro-Russian, and anti-immigration line. Buzzfeed News offers a window into Italy’s own “fake news” controversy:
Under lurid, all-capped headline phrases such as “THE TRUTH THEY ARE TRYING TO HIDE FROM US”, the party’s blogs, TzeTze, and other sites in the network have crossposted scores of fake stories. These include claims that the US is secretly funding traffickers bringing migrants from North Africa to Italy, and that Barack Obama wants to topple the Syrian regime to create instability across the region so China cannot get access to its oil.
Stories are often sourced to Kremlin-owned sites such as Sputnik, and the M5S editorial line is sympathetic to Putin and highly critical of the US and mainstream EU leaders.
“The drumbeat is incessant. Every day, all day,” one Italian journalist told BuzzFeed News.
Read the whole thing here.
While the influence of so-called “fake news” on elections is highly debatable—especially when unsubstantiated accusations about Russian propaganda are bandied about—the popularity of such material shows there is a huge audience in Italy for the brand of anti-establishment populism that has driven voters to the polls in favor of Brexit, Donald Trump, and populist parties across the European continent. If Renzi manages to squeak out a yes vote, his political career will survive another day—but so will the populist forces that are so loudly opposing him.