With a majority of around 82 per cent - far beyond the dreams of its promoters - they have voted in a referendum to throw out the ultra-proportional electoral laws and replace them with a first-past-the-post majority system.
The referendum, one of eight held on Sunday and yesterday, was a historic turning point in Italy's current democratic revolution. Horrified by allegations of politicians' complicity with the Mafia and large-scale corruption, but also weary of poor government, they opted for a system they hope will bring a clear alternation of parties in power, and direct responsibility of MPs to voters.
'Now at last we can clean things up a bit,' sighed an old man in Rome's Piazza del Popolo as the first projections came through. 'It is a victory for Italian civilisation,' added a young man fervently.
Mario Segni, leader of the 'yes' campaign, said the result was 'beyond our hopes'. It was a 'victory for the Italian people, who, with an overwhelming majority, have laid the foundations for a new Republic . . . With God's help the Italian people managed to make their choice in peace and with democratic methods.'
Italians' revulsion against the parties who have carved up the spoils of public life among themselves for so long was borne out in even greater majorities for other referendums. According to projections based on partial results, 88.4 per cent voted to strip future treasury ministers of the power to appoint the heads of the country's savings banks, while 89.2 per cent voted to abolish the Ministry for State Participation, which runs the huge state-owned industrial sector, scheduled for privatisation. These areas have long been exploited by the parties for jobs and illicit funds. Almost 90 per cent voted to put a stop to direct state contributions to the parties.
But it has already become clear that a majority system will not necessarily be a miraculous cure for all Italy's political ills. While voting was still in progress, leaders of parties in the 'yes' camp were squabbling over what should happen next, and fears were raised that the disgraced ruling parties, who still have a slender majority in parliament, will 'hijack' the result and use it to produce electoral laws favourable to themselves.
After the polls closed, the Prime Minister, Giuliano Amato, called on President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro to repeat what he has been saying for some weeks: that his fragile government has run its course and needs to be replaced. The President had insisted he stay on so as not to set off a crisis during the referendum campaign.
Mr Amato did not, however, resign. Instead he is expected, on the urging of the President, to say the same to parliament probably tomorrow at the start of a debate in which the parties will be obliged to state publicly their willingness or not to join a government that would steer the country through the next phase of changes.
At the end of the debate he is expected to resign and, on the basis of the parties' statements, the President will appoint the person he thinks most suitable to put a new government together. This could possibly be Mr Amato again.
The question remains: when will Italy have fresh elections? The referendum concerned only elections to the Senate but the response was so overwhelming that parliament could hardly refuse to introduce a majority system for the Chamber of Deputies as well, and it would take some months to pass new laws.Reuse content