Humiliation for Berlsuconi as Italy rejects 'devolution'

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The Independent Online

The boldest attempt by Silvio Berlusconi's government to transform Italy was in ruins yesterday after Italians voted overwhelmingly to reject his constitutional reform.

It was the second humiliation the media tycoon has suffered following his defeat at the general election in April - last month the centre-right was also routed in regional elections - and it put a big question mark over Mr Berlusconi's ability to hold his opposition coalition together.

Mr Prodi's job as Prime Minister, conversely, has become easier.

More than 53 per cent of Italians voted in the referendum, with greater numbers in the north than in the south, but "yes" votes prevailed only in the two regions that are the heartland of Umberto Bossi's secessionist Northern League, Lombardia and Veneto, which contains Venice. Even Milan, the centre of Mr Berlusconi's political support since he entered politics 13 years ago, said "no".

At the core of the referendum was the political raison d'être of the Northern League, the most dynamic new force to enter Italian politics since the second world war. It burst upon the scene 16 years ago with the avowed intention of breaking the centre's grip on policy making and implementation. The devolution proposed by the referendum foresaw control of police, schools and education passing from the centre into regional control. It was meant to be the first step on the road to autonomy and indeed, in the minds of the hardcore members of the Northern League, eventually full independence.

The League is back at square one. Its long and difficult partnership with Mr Berlusconi's Forza Italia and Gianfranco Fini's post-Fascist National Alliance having come to nothing. It is questionable how long Mr Berlusconi can continue to count on their support now they see all their efforts and hopes gone to waste.

For the centre-left, on the other hand, the referendum result was the second piece of cheering news following the nail-bitingly close general election. Romano Prodi said after the result became clear: "I never thought of this referendum as a test for our government, unlike the leader of the opposition who claimed that it was." His satisfaction was nonetheless evident.

Bolstering the "no" vote was the opinion of many constitutional experts, including the President of the Republic, Giorgio Napolitano, and at least two other former presidents that the reform was a botched job which, if implemented, would put Italy in grave difficulties.

Mr Prodi said over the weekend that the reform would have made Italy "ungovernable". Mr Napolitano, the first ex-communist to become Italy's head of state, said, soon after Italy's beleaguered football team scraped through the quarter-final of the World Cup, beating Australia thanks to a penalty: "It's a great day for football and the referendum."

As well as devolving power to the regions, Mr Berlusconi's constitutional reform also envisaged the strengthening of the prime minister's role. In the Italian set-up, the prime minister does not have the power to appoint ministers or dissolve parliament and is very much under the thumb of the president, who serves for seven years.

If the reform had been passed, an Italian prime minister would have powers broadly comparable to those of his British counterpart. This could have the merit of making Italian governance more decisive and bold - but many Italians fear that it could pave the way for a leader with despotic inclinations. It was the experience of 20 years of Mussolini's rule that led the drafters of Italy's Constitution to give the prime minister such limited powers.

Mr Prodi and his centre-left coalition allies have gone out of their way to insist that they are not against reform, only against this one. The government is likely to try to put together a constitutional conference, so the next attempt at reform will enjoy the support of both sides of parliament. In particular the government is anxious to overturn the law that allows fundamental reforms to be railroaded on to the statute books by a simple majority in parliament.