Italy and Austria vote in ‘day of reckoning’
Italians vote in Matteo Renzi’s constitutional referendum that threatens to destabilise the markets, while Austria's election re-run could admit Europe’s first far-right president in decades
Rome/Vienna — Italians and Austrians went to the polls on Sunday in votes that will reveal how deep the shift to Europe’s populist, far-right movements runs.
In Italy, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi voted Sunday in a constitutional referendum that has put his future on the line, divided Italy and raised fears of political and economic turmoil across Europe.
Renzi, who has vowed to resign if he loses, was counting on a last-minute turnaround in voter sentiment to win backing for his proposals to streamline parliament and centralise some powers currently held at regional level in the name of more effective and stable government.
Opposition parties have denounced the proposed amendments to the 68-year-old constitution as ill-considered and dangerous for democracy because they remove important checks and balances on executive power.
Spearheaded by the populist Five Star Movement, the biggest rival to Renzi’s Democratic party, the "No" campaign has also sought to capitalise on the Renzi’s declining popularity, a sluggish economy and the problems caused by tens of thousands of migrants arriving in Italy.
"God willing it’s over. A new era starts tomorrow I hope," said Matteo Salvini, leader of the far-right Northern League, after voting in Milan.
Former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who belatedly backed the "No" side, was also out early as the interior ministry reported brisk morning voting.
Result were expected in the early hours of Monday morning.
If Renzi goes, some short-term market turbulence is inevitable. Some analysts fear a deeper crisis of investor confidence that could derail a rescue scheme for Italy’s most indebted banks, triggering a wider financial crisis across the eurozone.
If he wins, Italy’s youngest ever prime minister will take it as a mandate to accelerate reforms in areas such as public administration, the judicial system and education.
Austrians, meanwhile, voted in a bitterly fought election re-run which could see the EU’s first far-right president and boost the anti-establishment tide sweeping many countries.
Norbert Hofer of the hardline Freedom Party (FPOe) said he felt "calm and optimistic" as he cast his ballot in his hometown of Pinkafeld, 100km south of Vienna.
Hofer, 45, hopes to emerge victorious after he narrowly lost to Greens-backed independent candidate Alexander Van der Bellen in a first run-off in May, which was annulled over ballot count breaches.
Opinion polls indicate the candidates are neck-and-neck in a tense race described as "day of reckoning" by Austrian media.
Boosted by Brexit and Donald Trump’s shock US election win, smooth-tongued gun enthusiast Hofer has vowed to "get rid of the dusty establishment", seek closer ties with Russia and fight against "Brussels centralising power".
"This vote will be a sign of the mood in Europe," Viennese voter Gerhard said.
Although Austria’s presidency is largely ceremonial, EU leaders fear a win for Hofer would trigger a domino effect with key elections next year in France, Germany and The Netherlands.
Hitherto unused presidential powers could, in theory, allow Hofer to fire the coalition government.
More realistically his victory might prompt the main parties to pull the plug on their unhappy union and call fresh elections, benefiting the poll-leading FPOe.