Berlusconi set to win referendum battle

ANDREW GUMBEL

Rome

The former Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, appeared to be heading for a comfortable victory in a series of referendums called to challenge his stranglehold on private television last night, as exit polls indicated between 53 and 58 per cent of voters in favour of him holding on to his three national networks.

The exit polls also gave him victory by a similar margin in two other referendums that challenged his virtual monopoly on television advertising.

If the poll predictions are confirmed by the official results, expected today, it would give Mr Berlusconi a boost after an uncomfortable few months following his resignation as prime minister last December.

The result would be a slap in the face for centre-left groups which have lobbied to end the anomaly whereby one of the country's leading political figures wields great power over its television output. And it would herald a free-market revolution in Italian broadcasting, as a fourth referendum result also called for the privatisation of the state broadcaster, RAI.

Exit polls in Italy are not always reliable, but last night's figures seemed to be conclusive. Mr Berlusconi refused to comment, preferring to wait for the official figures. But his former government spokesman, Giuliano Ferrara, proclaimed victory immediately after the exit polls came in.

"Fifteen years of ideological warfare by the left against non-state controlled television have been buried tonight," he said.

A major shake-up of Italian television seems still to be in the offing, however. Mr Berlusconi, keen to concentrate on his political ambitions, has said he wants to sell part of his Fininvest broadcasting empire anyway, possibly to Rupert Murdoch. Italy's Constitutional Court has questioned the legality of the 1990 broadcasting act that enshrined Mr Berlusconi's private monopoly.

Parliament is expected to rewrite the broadcasting act this summer, or by next spring at the latest. It will have to set a timetable for reforms in both the private and public sectors, to establish a system of rules and provide for the introduction of modern technology such as cable and satellite, which are at a primitive stage in Italy.

The debate will focus on the referendum campaign, in which the Fininvest channels bombarded viewers with pro- Berlusconi propaganda, while celebrity presenters claimed that the public would be deprived of its favourite daytime soap-operas.

The left-wing newspaper La Repubblica urged the authorities to cancel the referendums on the grounds that the campaign had been biased. Questions are also likely concerning the number of referendums held on the same day. There were 12 in all, ranging from trade-union rules to shop-opening hours, and the turn-out was relatively low.

Less than 60 per cent of the electorate voted, clearing the 50 per cent needed for a quorum, but low by Italian standards.

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