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Losing face

June 13, 2011

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has suffered a humiliating defeat in opposition-backed referendums to block nuclear power and abolish a law intended to give him legal immunity.

Silvio Berlusconi frowning
All four referendums did not go Berlusconi's wayImage: dapd

Despite urging the public to boycott four referendums, huge numbers of Italians turned out to deliver a humiliating electoral defeat to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in a two-day vote.

The proposals to repeal Berlusconi-era legislation on nuclear power, water privatization and trial immunity for government ministers were put forward by the opposition parties, and backed by more than 90 percent of the votes counted.

Berlusconi said the vote results showed "the will of the Italian people is clear." He now said it was the duty of government and parliament to "fully respond" to the referendum results.

Booming turnout

Democratic Party supporters and flags
The opposition Democratic Party lobbied hard to boost referendum turnoutImage: AP

Berlusconi had appealed for voters to stay away from the polls, a move aimed at preventing the referendums from reaching the minimum turnout threshold of 50 percent.

But following serious campaigning by the center-left opposition, turnout was 57 percent, reaching quorum for the first time since 1995.

Berlusconi's statements are "becoming irrelevant," said Pier Luigi Bersani, the leader of the main center-left opposition Democratic Party (PD).

"[The turnout] is the most serious signal of his detachment from the citizens," Bersani added as he called for Berlusconi to resign.

The Northern League, Berlusconi's coalition partner, also seemed dissatisfied with the result.

"In the local elections two weeks ago we had a slap in the face. Now with this referendum we've had the second slap in the face and I don't want this to become a habit," said Roberto Calderoli, one of the League's senior ministers.

Nuclear power plant in a field
Berlusconi wanted to re-introduce nuclear power to cut energy importsImage: SIGI TISCHLER / APA / picturedesk.com

No to nuclear

Italians were asked to vote for or against four questions related to the privatization of water utilities, nuclear power production and a law allowing top government officials, including the premier, to avoid court appearances because of their duties.

The public decided to uphold the ban on nuclear power, despite Berlusconi's government wanting to re-introduce it in order to cut energy bills. Currently Italy highly depends on oil and gas imports and Berlusconi said nuclear power was indispensible for the future of the country.

"Italy will probably have to say goodbye to the issue of nuclear power stations," said Berlusconi following the result. "We will have to commit strongly to the renewable energy sector."

Italians also supported repealing the "legitimate impediment" clause that allows ministers to skip trials, and rejected plans for the privatization of water utilities.

However, a spokesman for Berlusconi's center-right People of Freedom party warned the left against getting carried away with the results.

"Italians have voted on precise issues and were not called to express themselves for or against the government," said Daniele Capezzone.

The referendum results come as the 74-year-old premier faces a sex scandal, three fraud trials and recently suffered crushing losses in May's local elections.

Author: Catherine Bolsover (Reuters, dpa, AFP)
Editor: Martin Kuebler