Berlusconi faces referendum test

Italians began voting in four referendums yesterday that could strike a new blow against Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is still stinging from heavy local election losses last month.

The centre-left opposition has been leading a spirited campaign to get voters out to cast their ballots on the questions, which concern the privatisation of water utilities, nuclear energy, and whether government ministers can be exempt from attending trials against them.

A central issue will be whether enough voters turn out to ensure the necessary quorum of 50 per cent plus one vote. But if they repeal existing laws by voting yes, the result will have repercussions for Mr Berlusconi's fractious centre-right coalition.

"It's clear that a wave of 'yes' votes will result in a shock, perhaps the final one, for his premiership and even for his leadership of his party," Il Sole 24 Ore, Italy's leading business daily, said on Saturday.

Voting ends this afternoon. A quorum would be a setback to Mr Berlusconi because he has said he will not vote and some of his ministers have urged voters to boycott. For some, the votes will be a way to demonstrate their disappointment with Mr Berlusconi himself, who is facing a sex scandal and three fraud trials.

If the quorum was reached, it would mean that "more than half of Italians are pointing a finger against him", Il Sole said.