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Berlusconi faces fresh blow in referendums

Italians turned out in large numbers to vote in referendums that looked set to deliver another blow to...

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi gives a speech 02 September 2002 at Sandton convention center in Johannesburg. Picture: AFP.

Italians turned out in large numbers to vote in referendums that looked set to deliver another blow to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on Monday following last month's humiliating defeat in local elections.

Voting on the four referendums on nuclear power, water privatisation and trial immunity for government ministers, ends at 2pm BST but high turnout on Sunday's first day pointed to a damaging new defeat for the struggling centre-right government.

Berlusconi, who opposes the proposals to repeal laws passed by his governments since 1994, said last week that he would not vote. He had hoped most people would stay away, robbing the motions of the necessary 50 percent quorum.

The vote could not have come at a worse time for the 74-year-old premier, who faces a sex scandal and three fraud trials and who was weakened by crushing losses in last month's local elections, including in his northern power base, Milan.

The centre-left opposition campaigned hard to get voters to the polling stations and with a turnout of over 41 percent by Sunday night, were confident the quorum would be reached.

"Many will see this as a big victory for the opposition, a new shove to the government," Turin daily La Stampa said in an editorial. "But the real victory is a different one and a big one -- a renewed desire for participation by citizens."

The last referendum to reach a quorum was in 1995. Six have been declared void since then.

If voters repeal existing laws by voting "yes," the result is likely to hit Berlusconi's fractious centre-right coalition, which has struggled to regroup after the local election defeat.

Roberto Maroni, a senior minister from Berlusconi's increasingly impatient coalition partners the Northern League, said the government was running out of steam and needed to relaunch an ambitious reform programme very soon.

"I think Berlusconi is still capable of winning a much higher degree of consensus than he has so far but this is the last test," he told the daily Corriere della Sera.

DIVISIONS

A stagnant economy, one of the world's highest levels of public debt and 30 percent youth unemployment are among the problems facing a government riven by divisions over issues ranging from tax to the NATO campaign in Libya.

Economy Minister Giulio Tremonti, widely credited with shielding Italy from the financial market crisis, has insisted on rigid budget discipline but faces growing opposition from cabinet colleagues alarmed that the policy is electoral poison.

A confidence vote in parliament on 22 June, intended to test the government's majority after a reshuffle last month, will be the next test of whether Berlusconi has the support to see out his term until its scheduled end in 2013.

"Berlusconi has to show he is brave and launch an ambitious programme for the next two years. He should do it now, on 22 June in parliament," said Interior Minister Maroni, whose party's support is vital for the government's majority.

With speculation growing that cabinet divisions may bring down the government before 2013, Monday's referendum provides a snapshot of the electorate's mood and most commentators predict that if a quorum is reached, the "yes" votes will succeed.

The referendum on nuclear power is the most emotive of the four, in the wake of the disaster at Japan's Fukushima reactor in March. Polls say most Italians are against nuclear energy, which they consider unsafe in a country prone to earthquakes.

Berlusconi has been a major supporter of nuclear power, which the centre right says is indispensable for the future of a country that imports nearly all its energy.

Last year the government passed a law to re-start a nuclear energy programme, which was halted in 1987 by another referendum. Aware of the likely backlash following Fukushima, the government has suspended the plans but a referendum could block atomic power for decades.

Another referendum would repeal the so-called "legitimate impediment" that allows ministers to skip trial hearings against them if they are on government business, which Berlusconi's critics say is for his personal benefit in facing four concurrent trials by delaying proceedings.

Two others concern the privatisation of water utilities. The government says privatisation is essential to finance better services while opponents say it would lead to higher prices.

Timeline

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