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Four referenda, one huge blow for Berlusconi

Italy's recent referendum results show the prime minister's struggle for power is turning from tragedy to farce, writes Paolo Gerbaudo

June 22, 2011
7 min read

Berlusconi was just trying to recover from the phenomenal slap he received at the recent local elections which have seen the left take Milan and Naples, when the results of the most recent referendum smacked him down again.

On 12 and 13 June, 57 per cent of Italians, including those living abroad, turned up at the polls. Ninety-five per cent of them crossed ‘yes’ on all four questions, thus reversing a number of policies Berlusconi’s government had recently introduced or had further implemented: the return to nuclear power, the privatisation of the water supply and a legal mechanism to protect the prime minister from criminal proceedings.

When it was becoming apparent that the 50 per cent quorum would be reached – thus making the referendum valid – Berlusconi, giving a press conference with the visiting Israeli prime minister, shrugged off the tension with one of his trademark macho jokes. ‘Do you see that?’, he asked Netanyahu, pointing to a 19th-century painting of Apollo surrounded by naked nymphs. ‘That was a bunga bunga, and that guy was me.’ Later he reluctantly admitted that the likely result of the referendum would bring about an halt to his coveted plan for the return of nuclear power – but the fault lay not with him but Fukushima.

For all Berlusconi’s attempts to minimise the impact of the referendum, this might just be one of those moments in which the direct democracy institution of compulsory referendum following petition, established by the 1948 republican constitution, changes Italy’s history. It happened in 1974, when the rejection of a referendum which wanted to repeal a new law allowing divorce amounted to an unprecedented blow to the Catholic Church and attested the increasing secularisation of the country. Thirteen years later, in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster, a referendum made Italy the first major European country to abandon nuclear power in what was both an emotional and rational decision.

The implosion of the so-called First Republic was also ignited by a referendum. In 1991, voters decided in favour of the ‘only preference’ system (rather than triple) to elect the representatives of the House of Deputies. The change was to be the first strike against ‘partitocrazia’, the system of power of traditional parties with their tight control over the electoral process, and it was a sign of the incoming storm. The following year Milan judges would begin to unravel a huge corruption and party financing scandal known as ‘Tangentopoli’ (the city of bribery) which sent hundreds of politicians and businessmen to jail and forced the transition to the Second Republic.

Then referenda stopped being a force for good in Italian politics. The last one to reach quorum was the one which saved Berlusconi’s economic empire and political career. It was 1995, and a coalition of leftist parties and interest groups had asked voters to break up the concentration of television ownership and to open the way to cable and satellite television. It was a clear threat to Berlusconi’s interests and the media mogul mobilised all his TV channels.

Popular anchormen and TV personalities invited viewers to vote ‘no’ to save their favourite programmes. Fifty-six per cent of Italians followed their advice, giving new confidence to Berlusconi, who had just been ousted from government and would continue in opposition until 2001. It was the last referendum to reach quorum for 15 years: Italians deserted the following six referenda on issues ranging from electoral law to artificial insemination. It seemed love was lost between Italians and direct democracy.

The revival of the referendum’s fortunes was made possible by an array of grassroots campaigns which started collecting the half a million signatures required to call a referendum in 2010. Activists campaigning for the nationalisation of water went well over the target. They collected over 1,400,000 signatures in just two months thanks to a capillary network of activists, with over 1,000 local committees. A coalition of 80 NGOs and associations worked in parallel to organise a referendum on nuclear power, while anti-corruption groups campaigned for a referendum against the law allowing the prime minister not to appear in penal hearings.

Almost all the main TV channels, indirectly or directly controlled by Berlusconi, gave very little coverage to the event, and Berlusconi tried to circumvent it. He scheduled it in a different date than the local elections, with an added cost of 100 million euros, hoping for a low turnout. Then after Fukushima, realising that citizens would vote anyway, he suddenly introduced a moratorium on nuclear power in an aborted attempt to find a legal pretext to halt the vote. Faced with such opposition from the political and media elites, campaigners turned to Facebook and Youtube to broadcast their message, organising a number of local events and national demonstrations which attracted hundreds of thousands of people.

Nuclear power was unsurprisingly the issue which attracted the most media attention, given the recent disaster in Japan and the huge economic interests involved. Berlusconi had made the return to nuclear power one of his flagship policies. Accused by the opposition of wanting to reverse the results of the 1987 referendum, he replied that citizens had been duped by a bunch of communists and environmentalists who had condemned Italy to depend on oil-exporting countries.

His coalition approved a new law to allow the construction of nuclear power stations and commissioned Electricite de France (EDF) to conduct a study on possible locations. Then Fukushima came. Soon it appeared clear that Berlusconi’s nuclear dream was to follow the fate of many of his pet projects, like the bridge between Sicily and Calabria, and the friendship pact with Gaddafi’s Libya.

The high-profile nature of the nuclear question also served to attract more interest to another subject of the referendum: water privatisation. This issue came to symbolise the urge to halt and possibly reverse the wave of privatisation which since the eighties has seen national and local institutions sell off many of their assets, often under centre-left governments.

On this issue, Italians found two different water-related questions in the ballot box. The first asked to repeal a law opening water supply services to private companies, the second to prohibit them from making profits in this sector. Both questions were approved with 95 per cent of the ballots, demonstrating that a large majority of Italians do not buy into the neoliberal creed – or, at least, not any more – and value the few surviving public services.

The last question in this referendum regarded Berlusconi personally. Voters abolished the law Berlusconi made for himself to allow him not to appear in penal hearings and which is named after his justice minister, and now chosen successor, the Sicilian MP Angelino Alfano.

The abrogation of the so-called ‘shield law’ will not have major practical consequences, given that the constitutional court had already strongly amended it. Nevertheless, the fact that a large majority of Italians have made it clear they want their prime minister to be equal before the law, is worrying for Berlusconi given that he’s now facing four different trials with accusations ranging from corruption, to under-age prostitution and abuse of power.

It is not only judges Berlusconi has to be worried about now. The slow-motion collapse of his system of power seems to have entered a terminal stage. His ally Umberto Bossi, the leader of the Northern party Lega Nord, is getting increasingly nervous. Asked whether the government would continue, Bossi twice gave a thumbs down to the press. Later the same day Berlusconi said he had spoken with him. ‘He was just joking,’ he said, ‘that was a message to journalists, not to me.’

As Berlusconi’s struggle for power is quickly turning from tragedy to farce, he continues to repeat that he is the only man who can steer the country in the current phase of financial emergency. But for the man who ‘screwed an entire country’, it’s showdown time. His jokes fall on deaf ears, as do his promises.

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