Italy referendums seen as judgement on Berlusconi

Reuters , Thursday 9 Jun 2011

Italians vote in four referendums this weekend which the center-left opposition hopes will strike a new blow against Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi

In this file photo of Friday, May 13, 2011 Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi gestures as he addresses supporters during a campaign rally in Naples, Italy, (AP).

Italians vote in four referendums this weekend which the centre-left opposition hopes will strike a new blow against Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and hasten his decline after heavy local election losses last month.

While the referendums concern the privatisation of water utilities, nuclear energy and whether government ministers can be exempt from attending trials against them, they are widely seen as a vote on Berlusconi himself.

They could not have come at a worse time for the premier, facing a lurid sex scandal and three fraud trials, who was badly weakened by humiliating defeats of centre-right candidates in the elections, including in his northern power base, Milan.

"Despite strenuous denials from all sides, the real issue is Berlusconi and his government," said James Walston, political science professor at the American University of Rome.

The devastating setback in the local polls dashed the billionaire business mogul's hopes of going into the referendums on a wave of electoral success for his anointed candidates.

A central issue will be whether enough voters turn out to ensure the necessary quorum of 50 percent plus one vote. But if they repeal existing laws by voting yes, the result will likely have repercussions on his fractious centre-right coalition.

The Northern League, whose support is vital to his thin parliamentary majority, will be watching the results closely.

Analysts say it is only a matter of time before the League, which provoked the collapse of Berlusconi's first government in 1994, decides he no longer has a political Midas touch.

"If the referendums succeed, the League will pile on pressure and raise the temperature," said Walston, who predicted that a further slide in Berlusconi's fortunes could lead to a new centre-right government this autumn, probably led by Economy Minister Giulio Tremonti.

Italy has had the most sluggish economy in Europe over the past decade, youth unemployment hovers at around 25 percent and government policy is constrained by the need to contain a debt mountain equivalent to some 120 percent of GDP.

Some government ministers are urging Italians to boycott the referendums so they fail through lack of a quorum, or to vote against repealing laws passed by the Berlusconi government.

But centre-left referendum backers, riding high on the success of the local elections in May, have been mounting a spirited campaign to get out the vote that has included a race by naked participants and demonstrations by priests and nuns.

The referendum on nuclear power is the most emotive of the four, in the wake of the disaster at Japan's Fukushima reactor last March. Polls say most Italians are against nuclear energy, which they consider unsafe in a country that is prone to earthquakes.


Berlusconi is a big proponent of nuclear power, which the centre-right says is indispensable for the future of a country that imports nearly all its energy.

Last year the government passed a law to re-start a nuclear energy programme, which was halted in 1987 by another referendum. Aware of the likely backlash following Fukushima, the government has suspended the plans but a referendum could block atomic power for decades.

Another referendum would repeal the so-called "legitimate impediment" that allows ministers to skip trial hearings against them on if they are on government business, which Berlusconi's critics say is for his personal benefit.

Two others concern the privatisation of water utilities. The government says privatisation is essential to finance better services. Opponents say it would just lead to higher prices.

The real unknown is whether the opposition can buck a trend of failed referendums and bring out the vote. The last referendum to reach a quorum in Italy was in 1995. Six referendums have been declared void since then.

"But people seem to be more excited about this one," said Walston. "Even bishops are telling people to go out and vote".

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