Voters deal Berlusconi latest blow in referendums

Updated: 2011-06-14 09:02
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MILAN - Italian voters turned out in large numbers to deal Premier Silvio Berlusconi his latest blow at the ballot box Monday, overturning laws passed by his government to revive nuclear energy, privatize the water supply - and help him avoid prosecution.

Voters deal Berlusconi latest blow in referendums

Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi gestures during a news conference with his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu (not pictured) at Villa Madama in Rome June 13, 2011. [Photo/Agencies]

The defeat on four referendums on the ballot Sunday and Monday was Berlusconi's second in as many weeks, after his candidates lost mayoral races in his stronghold Milan and trash-choked Naples in a vote the billionaire media mogul himself had billed as a referendum on his government.

Center-left opposition leader Pier Luigi Bersani said referendum results were tantamount to "a divorce between the government and the country."

Activists for the "yes" vote on four referendums erupted in cheers in the capital Rome when it became clear that voter turnout, topping 57 percent, had surpassed the quorum needed to validate the vote. It was the first time since 1995 that the quorum of more than 50 percent was reached.

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Final results showed clear overwhelming majorities of those casting ballots chose to throw out two laws to privatize the water supply, kill a law reviving nuclear energy and undo the so-called "legitimate impediment" law offering the Italian leader a partial legal shield in criminal prosecutions. Each referendum passed with around 95 percent.

Italy becomes the second Group of Eight country after Germany to ditch nuclear energy following the nuclear disaster in Japan triggered by the March 11 quake and tsunami. Germany announced last month plans to abandon its nuclear program by 2022.

It is the second time Italy has said no to nuclear power. The first time was a 1987 referendum, the year after the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine.

"The high turnout for the referendums demonstrates that the desire of citizens to participate in the decisions about our future cannot be ignored," Berlusconi said in a statement. "The government has the duty to fully take into account the response to the four referendums."

Berlusconi's majority in Parliament will be tested next week during a vote on the new government appointments. Insisting upon the vote was President Giorgio Napolitano, who decides whether coalitions command enough loyalty in the legislature to effectively govern.

The vote will give the restive allies in the Northern League an opportunity to demonstrate whether they will still stick with Berlusconi, or jump ship.

One prominent Northern League leader as well as minister, Roberto Calderoli, said the League was tired "of being slapped in the face."

Political analyst James Watson said that Berlusconi's parliamentary majority, which depends on the Northern League, "is very much at risk at the moment.

"Berlusconi is clearly out of favor with the majority of Italians for one reason or another," said Watson, a political scientist at American University of Rome, adding that the premier "pretends that everything is all right."

Berlusconi and many of his allies abstained from voting on the ballot questions that were direct challenges to both his coalition's policies and his legal tactics in criminal cases in Milan.

The government tried to block the nuclear referendum, abrogating its own law relaunching nuclear power to give the country time for reflection. However, the country's highest court said the referendum, backed by 750,000 signatures, could go ahead.

Berlusconi's conservative government had also passed a law mandating that the water supply be privatized by the end of 2011, saying the step was needed to aging delivery systems and cut waste, and another law imposing market rules on water pricing. Roman Catholic nuns and priests joined the campaign to revoke the law, saying that water was a human right that should not be subject to market rules.

But the referendum on whether top government officials could continue to enjoy a "legitimate impediment" from defending themselves in court due to official business was the most direct swipe at Berlusconi. Italy's highest court already weakened the law, unfreezing criminal prosecutions in Milan earlier this year. The court said, however, that Berlusconi's lawyers could cite official engagements on a hearing-by-hearing basis as reason that the premier couldn't show up in court.

Stretching out the hearings could play out in Berlusconi's favor by eroding the statute of limitations. Berlusconi's lawyers have been seeking to schedule court appearances in four cases based on the premier's official duties.

Berlusconi, who for years exercised his right not to attend his own trial, now says he wants to defend himself in court.

Among the criminal cases he is facing in Milan is his trial on charges of having paid for sex with an underage teen and then using his influence to cover it up. That trial continues Tuesday, although Berlusconi is not expected to attend the hearing, which is due to take up technical matters.

Berlusconi denies the accusations in that trial as well as in all the other cases. He insists he is the innocent victim of prosecutors he claims sympathize with the left.