Berlusconi faces wrath of voters in weekend referendums


JUST TWO weeks after his centre-right government was emphatically beaten in local elections in Milan and Naples, Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi could be headed for another significant electoral reverse in a three-issue referendum due to be held this weekend.

Italians will be asked if they want to reject current legislation that (1) allows for a future nuclear energy programme, (2) the privatisation of water resources and (3) empowers the prime minister not to appear in court, if summonsed to trial, because of the so-called “legitimate impediment” of government business.

All opinion polls indicate that a significant majority of those who bother to vote will opt to throw out all three laws.

As so often with an Italian referendum, however, the big question is not which way the vote will go, but rather will enough of the 47.3 million voters turn out to ensure the 50 per cent + 1 electoral quorum necessary for the referendum to be considered valid?

Throughout the postwar period, the referendum instrument has marked some vitally important moments in modern Italian history.

In 1946, Italians voted in favour of a republic rather than a monarchy. In 1974 and in 1981, despite a strong Catholic Church campaign, they voted in favour of divorce and abortion, respectively.

Yet abuse of the referendum instrument, often by the Radical party, has undermined the electorate’s enthusiasm in recent years. Since 1974, there have been 15 different referendums, in which the quorum was reached just eight times.

The most recent referendum, two years ago, proposing a series of minor but not insignificant changes to the parliamentary electoral system, proved a total flop, with only 23.3 per cent of the electorate bothering to vote.

This time, however, it is different. If there is an issue likely to galvanise public opinion, in Italy as elsewhere, it is the question of nuclear power plants. In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, three months ago, many Italians may be moved to vote No to nuclear power. In 1987, just months after the Chernobyl disaster, 80.57 per cent of the electorate voted against any future nuclear power programme in Italy.

This current referendum has been partly prompted by the fact that the Berlusconi government has indicated it wants Italy to go nuclear, despite that 1987 vote. At the end of April, the prime minister said he remained “convinced that nuclear energy is the future for the whole world”.

Despite that conviction, however, and aware of the mood of public opinion, Mr Berlusconi tried desperately to get the nuclear question removed from this weekend’s ballot, arguing that the government’s decision to put the Italian nuclear programme on hold meant the referendum was irrelevant.

Last Tuesday, the Constitutional Court ruled against the government, allowing the nuclear question to remain on the ballot sheet. That decision may, de facto, have guaranteed the quorum that the prime minister clearly dreads. (Mr Berlusconi said on Thursday that he would not be voting.)