Italian Prime Minister Resigns After Populist Party Led By Former Comedian Wins Referendum

In yet another swing of the European political pendulum, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi resigned on Monday after a crushing defeat in the country’s referendum on Sunday. Renzi, who previously promised to step down if he lost the vote for his constitutional reforms package, was defeated by populist group Five Star Movement, led by former stand-up comedian and blogger Beppe Grillo, a Donald Trump supporter who is determined to not only shake up the status quo, but lead the country.

Renzi risked his political future in an attempt to change the balance of power in Italy’s political system, where he wanted to strengthen central government and weaken the Senate, a move which many parties – including his own – argued would place more power in the hands of the PM.

With a near 70% voter turnout and most of the ballots counted, the “No” camp led with 60% of the votes while the “Yes” camp had 40% and the result will be seen as yet another installment in the latest wave of anti-establishment politics across the world, following the UK’s Brexit result in June and Donald Trump winning the U.S. election last month.

Referendum, Rome, Italy - 05 Dec 2016
Photo by Gregorio Borgia/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Renzi said he would visit Italian President Sergio Mattarella on Monday to formally hand in his resignation following a final meeting of his cabinet. Mattarella will decide whether to appoint a new PM or hold a general election.

There were fears that the news would send Europe’s economy into turmoil, especially as the Euro tumbled to a 21-month low overnight, dropping by 1.4% to $2.0505 against the dollar. But mid-morning trade saw the Euro jump back above $1.07 against the dollar, its highest level since November 17, with many investors betting on a snap election.

Grillo, who has had a lengthy career as a comedian and is a big name in the blogosphere, began to make a name for himself in the political landscape in the 1980s with his political satire that often offended a number of politicians. In 1987, Grillo was banished from publicly-owned television after he offended the Italian Socialist Party and its then leader Bettino Craxi. He co-founded Five-Star in 2009 and is known for his controversial remarks such as asking when London’s newly-elected London mayor Sadiq Khan will “blow up Westminster” and has publicly spoken out in support of Trump and Brit politician Nigel Farage, one of the leaders of “Leave”campaign in the UK’s European referendum.

But despite the rise of the anti-EU Five Star movement, analysts have downplayed what this means.

“I am not sure one should identify the score on the referendum with the strength of support for the Five Stars movement,” analyst Alice Enders told Deadline. “Sure, they took the Rome mayoral office this year but that is different from holding the reigns of power.”

She added that the result could be bad for advertising as businesses reflect on “the perennial problem of Italy.”

Former Italian prime minister and media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi campaigned for “No” and there have been whispers of a political comeback but sources indicate that this is unlikely due to his tax-fraud conviction and the fact his Mediaset business posted a loss of  €116.6M ($124.7M) in the first three quarters of this year.

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