Defeat in polls prompts calls for Berlusconi to go


ITALIAN OPPOSITION leaders last night called on prime minister Silvio Berlusconi to resign following his unprecedentedly heavy defeat in the weekend’s referendum.

In what was his second successive electoral setback, following local elections in Milan and Naples two weeks ago, Mr Berlusconi registered a significant and emphatic defeat on at least four fronts.

First, despite his own much discussed decision not to vote, 57 per cent of the 47 million electorate did, thus ensuring that the referendum reached the 50 per cent + 1 quorum necessary to be valid, and this for the first time in 16 years.

Second, quite clearly many of those who voted last weekend were his own centre-right voters. Third, 95 per cent of voters rejected his self-awarded ad personam immunity from prosecution legislation, better known as the “legitimate impediment” law. Fourth, the electorate rejected current government legislation allowing for a future nuclear energy programme and the privatisation of water resources, both by an equally high 92-93 per cent margin.

“It’s hard to imagine that Italians could have expressed a more emphatic vote of no confidence”, commented former centre-left prime minister Massimo D’Alema.

“Today, the country has had enough and is sending a very clear message. Get off the pitch and, via the modus of an early general election, allow us to breathe again”, said Puglia regional president Nichi Vendola, leader of the leftist SEL party.

Pier Luigi Bersani, leader of the main opposition party, the Democratic Party (PD), also called on Mr Berlusconi to resign, saying that the ideal scenario would be one in which, if no agreement on immediate electoral reform could be reached, then an early general election should be called.

Not only the centre-left but also senior centre-right figures interpreted the result as a serious defeat for Mr Berlusconi. Former interior minister Claudio Scajola said that the vote was a “signal of public opinion’s low esteem of the government”.

Arguably more worrying for Mr Berlusconi were the reactions of senior figures in the Northern League, the government’s vital coalition partner. The mayor of Verona, Flavio Tosi, commented: “A certain section of the centre-right electorate went out to vote in order to send a message to the prime minister”. Minister Roberto Calderoli indicated that the time had come for the league to consider its future alliance options.

Mr Calderoli indicated the league would present Mr Berlusconi with a series of ultimatums at its annual party celebrations next weekend, adding: “We got a right kick in the teeth at the local elections two weeks ago and now with this referendum we’ve been kicked a second time. I wouldn’t like to think that it gets to be a habit . . . ”

In a note yesterday evening, the prime minister acknowledged that the “high turnout” was indicative of “a desire on the part of citizens to participate in decisions on our future, a desire that cannot be ignored” and which must be taken on board.

Antonio Di Pietro, leader of the Italy of Values (IDV) party, which first promoted the referendum, said this was not the time to engage in polemics, pointing out that many centre-right voters had supported the referendum. Rather, this was the time to propose a serious government alternative.