Italy referendums 2011
Abrogative referendums were held in Italy on June 14, 2011. Article 75 of the constitution allows voters or five regional councils to propose the full or partial abrogation of a law through referendum. However, for an abrogative referendum to be successful, turnout must be over 50% or the vote will be deemed invalid. That means that opponents of the repeal of the laws in question more often than not abstain in mass and allow the referendum in question to fail, while those who do vote overwhelmingly favour the repeal of the laws. The last such referendum in 2009 saw paltry 23% turnout on questions related to electoral legislation. The last abrogative referendums which were valid were in 1995.
After Silvio Berlusconi’s defeat in the local elections two weeks ago, the referendums were another major test to the now unpopular cavaliere. The first question was about repealing a law allowing for the privatization of public services such as water distribution. The second question dealt with profits made in water distribution by private investors. The third question repealed a law allowing for the construction of nuclear power plants in Italy. The fourth question repealed Berlusconi’s immunity law which allows for the immunity of sitting ministers and of the President of the Council facing criminal charges. Berlusconi had passed this law so he wouldn’t have to attend his trials, notably in the Rubygate scandal.
Given how hard it is for turnout in these things to come close to 50%, let alone meet the threshold, the road ahead for the opposition was tough. But the winds have suddenly changed on Berlusconi, rather dramatically. A bit more than a year ago, the 2010 regional elections still gave the right victory. But the local elections in May, with the left gaining Milan and holding Naples, showed a major change in the popular mood. Berlusconi’s erratic flamboyant populism, which has always worked wonders for him, blew up in his face during the local elections. Voters turned soured on his populism, seeing his scaremongering rhetoric on Muslims and gypsies as cover for his corruption and a bad economic situation. That represents a major sea change, and maybe the beginning of the end for Berlusconi. The referendums gave another major blow to Berlusconi. Voters got motivated to go out, and around 57% of Italians voted for a final turnout of 55% when Italians abroad are counted. Berlusconi himself didn’t vote, spending his weekend at his luxurious mansion in Sardinia.
Berlusconi’s supporters stayed home, so all four referendums passed with 95.3%, 95.8%, 94.1% and 94.6% in favour respectively. But that still means that nearly 57% of Italian voters voted against Berlusconi. That is important, and that is a real boost for the opposition and a real disaster for the government. Berlusconi is a shrewd, intelligent politician who has come back from the dead more than once in his political career. He is the personality driving Italian politics since 1994, so he has had his ups and downs. But with his trademark flamboyant populism blowing up in his face, this could represent a major blow. The left itself still needs to find itself a strong voice. The PD’s leader Pier Luigi Bersani remains a pretty poor leader who has trouble leading the PD to a break through. Instead, left-wingers are increasingly attracted to the New Left outfit (SEL) of Nichi Vendola, the charismatic and popular president of Apulia.