Italy gives Prodi vote of confidence in referendum battle on constitution

 Adrian Michaels in Milan for the FT




Romano Prodi's new government cemented its hold on power yesterday with Italians voting heavily against constitutional changes championed by the previous administration of Silvio Berlusconi.

With most of the votes counted, over 61 per cent of Italians had voted No to the changes, handing Mr Prodi a resounding third electoral victory in as many months.

His wide coalition, which ranges from centrists to unreconstructed communists, secured a tiny majority in one of the two houses of parliament in the general election in April. Later mayoral elections were more decisive for the left in key cities.

Moreover, the turnout from the two-day poll was about 54 per cent, historically high by Italian referendum standards and allaying fears that electoral apathy would be the winner.

Mr Prodi will feel boosted by the vote ahead of impending tough negotiations within the coalition over budget cuts.

The referendum was seen by many as test of the prime minister's standing. Mr Berlusconi had in particular been calling on Italians to deliver a blow to the government.

Instead it could be Mr Berlusconi who is damaged. His leadership of the centre-right opposition coalition could be under fire after three poll defeats.

About 47m Italians were eligible to vote on the proposed changes that would have shifted substantial power to the country's regions. However, even large parts of the north, where feelings are strongest for regional autonomy, voted No in returns gathered so far.

The Northern League, the populist party which had stayed in the previous government to see through the referendum, could be the most likely to quit the centre-right coalition and undermine Mr Berlusconi's authority.

However Umberto Bossi, League leader, last week played down suggestions that the party would walk in the event of a No vote. He said yesterday that the League's campaign would continue.

Roberto Calderoli, who had been a League minister in Mr Berlusconi's defeated government, said: "The [centre-right] alliance will be looked at again on a new basis, but it does not mean that it will break apart."

Mr Prodi pledged yesterday that a dialogue on constitutional change, which many moderates on the left believe to be essential, would start in any case. The prime minister had said the changes as formulated in the referendum would be costly and break national unity.

Among other proposals, the most far-reaching changes to Italy's constitution since it took effect in 1948, Italy's two parliamentary houses would have ceased to have identical powers and the number of politicians elected to Rome would have decreased.

The referendum was required as the changes did not pass through parliament under Mr Berlusconi with a big enough majority.

Giorgio Napolitano, Italy's new president, was pleased with the turnout and also with Italy's injury-time winner against Australia in the World Cup. He said: "It's really a good day, all is well."


 

 

June 2006

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