Berlusconi trounced in referendums

2011-06-14 11:21

Rome – Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi suffered a trouncing in referendums that wiped out his plans to return Italy to nuclear power and dismissed a law designed to keep him out of court.

The results, following hard on disastrous local election results, have already provoked a growing unease from his supporters.

Final results showed crushing votes of more than 90% against the government in the four referendum questions: on nuclear power; on a law to give Berlusconi legal immunity; and two on water privatisation.

Official figures released early today by the interior ministry do not yet include votes cast by Italians living abroad.

But more than 94% of voters slammed the government’s plans for brand new atomic power stations, which had been one of Berlusconi’s flagship policies.

And nearly 95% voted to strip Berlusconi of special privileges accorded him as prime minister that exempted him from court appearances.

Berlusconi himself did not vote and the government had encouraged its supporters to stay away. But official data showed that nearly 56% of voters had turned out to have their say.

Acknowledging this late yesterday, Berlusconi said: “The high turnout in the referendums shows a will on the part of citizens to participate in decisions about our future that cannot be ignored.”

The level of turnout was crucial because without the participation of more than 50% of voters the referendums would have had no legal force.

The vote against Berlusconi’s plans to resume a nuclear programme reflects popular unease about atomic energy in Europe after the Fukushima disaster in Japan.

And the rejection of the partial immunity law suggested voter’s growing disenchantment with the 74-year-old prime minister’s legal woes.

Berlusconi is a defendant in ongoing three trials involving allegations of bribery, fraud, abuse of power and paying for sex with a 17-year-old girl.

As the scale of the defeat became clear, the ruling party moved quickly to limit the damage.

Ruling party spokesperson Daniele Capezzone warned critics against reading to much into the results. They should not see “a meaning or a political effect”, he insisted.

Defence Minister Ignazio La Russa said there would be “no effect on government policy”.

But the referendum defeats represent as a second hammer blow to the embattled premier in less than a month, after his People of Freedom party lost critical mayoral votes in Milan and Naples in May.

And now, even his allies and supporters were expressing their discontent.

Roberto Calderoli, a senior figure in the Northern League party, Berlusconi’s junior coalition partner, firing one warning shot.

“We got a slap in the face in the elections two weeks ago,” said Calderoli, a Northern League minister. “Now at the referendums we’ve had another slap.

“I don’t want getting slapped in the face to become a habit.”

Giuliano Ferrara, an influential talk-show host and long-term Berlusconi supporter, also expressed alarm, saying: “Something needs to change.

Berlusconi and his ruling elite have decided not to change, to continue like this, and I deeply and radically disagree.”

Meanwhile, Pier Luigi Bersani, leader of the main opposition Democratic Party, pressed home his advantage, calling on Berlusconi to resign.

“This referendum was about the divorce between the government and the country,” he said.

James Walston, an Italian politics professor at the American University of Rome, agreed.

While Berlusconi still has a majority in parliament, it is clear he does not have one in the country, Walston argued.

“Of course Berlusconi could step down but that is not his style. It is very clear that the centre right is in a serious mess and that they have no exit strategy,” Walston said.

“With a one-man party, there is no mechanism to find a new leader and no obvious substitute,” he added.

The prime minister’s popularity ratings have hit record lows this year.

Lurid allegations surrounding his liaison with a nightclub dancer known as Ruby the Heart Stealer have been too much for many Italians.

And on the economic front, the country’s sluggish growth is not reassuring the business community. 

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