Berlusconi calls on electorate to vote No in Italian referendum

Former prime minister warns Matteo Renzi’s will be ‘boss of all Italy’ if proposal passes

Demonstrators in Rome hold banners calling for a No vote ahead of the  referendum on constitutional reform in Italy. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Demonstrators in Rome hold banners calling for a No vote ahead of the referendum on constitutional reform in Italy. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

 

Former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi has stepped into the fray ahead of the country’s key constitutional reform referendum, calling on voters to reject Matteo Renzi’s proposal at the ballot box next Sunday.

The media tycoon (80), leader of centre-right Forza Italia, had already expressed his preference for a No vote but, until now, had kept a relatively low campaign profile.

With opinion polls estimating that 12-13 per cent of the electorate still vote for Forza Italia, Mr Berlusconi’s endorsement of the No side on Sunday represents another obstacle to the passing of the referendum, which is promoted above all by Mr Renzi and his Democratic Party (PD).   

In normal times, concerns about Italy’s twin chamber parliamentary system of perfect parity, about the number of Italian parliamentarians, and about Italian local government autonomy would be a matter of interest only to Italy.  

Repercussions

Yet, in the year of the electoral victories of Brexit and US president-elect Donald Trump, many foreign observers believe that this vote could have repercussions far beyond Italy.

Given that Mr Renzi has invested much political capital in having these reforms approved by the popolo, foreign observers and the “markets” alike remain anxious about the impact that a defeat for Mr Renzi might have on the stability of the euro zone’s third largest economy.   

Worse still, the three major political forces opposed to the referendum – the Five Star Movement (M5S), the anti-immigrant Northern League and Forza Italia – are all, in their different ways, highly Eurosceptic.

Both the M5S and the Northern League have threatened pull Italy out of the euro, while Mr Berlusconi still believes his political downfall in 2011 was orchestrated by senior EU partners.

All those opposed to these reforms argue that they place too much power in the hands of the prime minister, giving him control not only of parliament but also of constitutional court appointments and the election of the state president – thus undermining the checks and balances of Italy’s 1948 constitution, introduced in the wake of Benito Mussolini’s fascist dictatorship.   

Media power

Mr Berlusconi, often criticised for holding too much media power and for introducing ad personam legislation to resolve his own judicial problems, pointed an accusatory finger at Mr Renzi on Sunday, saying: “He has created a reform for himself . . . If the Yes vote wins, he will be the boss of all Italy.”

For his part, Mr Renzi – who has campaigned intensively throughout the autumn – continued to stress on Sunday that the referendum represents a “great opportunity” to change Italian politics.

“If I look at the number of parties against us, we’re lost. Sure, this is a difficult battle but there are plenty of people, not just in the PD party, who long for a simpler country, a more tranquil country.

“ This is a great opportunity to simplify the system and it doesn’t depend on the parties, rather on the electorate,” he said.

Opinion polls put the No vote ahead but only by a narrow margin, meaning that it is currently impossible to predict the outcome.

A further complication is that the complex nature of the constitutional issues will almost certainly lead to an unusually high level of abstention.

A low turnout, however, does not invalidate this vote.