Italians vote on whether to break up the country

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The Independent Online

Voting began yesterday in a referendum which, if passed, would transform the way the nation is governed and put a question mark over the future of a united Italy. A yes vote would also make it far more difficult for Romano Prodi to hold his rowdy centre-left coalition together.

If rejected, however, which seems more likely, it could reduce Silvio Berlusconi's chances of holding his centre-right coalitiontogether and posing a real and present danger to Mr Prodi's government. It could also mark the death throes of the Northern League, the populist party led by rabble-rouser Umberto Bossi which is behind the reform.

At stake is the biggest reform since the constitution was enacted 60 years ago. It aims to give the Prime Minister far greater powers, comparable to those of a British prime minister, and would be a major step in the direction of federalism, with the centre ceding control over health, education and local police to the regions.

The reform was passed by parliament under Mr Berlusconi's centre-right administration and was the fruit of his alliance with Mr Bossi, who was his Minister for Reforms until brought down by a stroke. But the opposition forced Mr Berlusconi to submit the reform to a referendum.

Voting is taking place over two days and polling stations close today at 3pm. But sunshine and football are distracting citizens from their democratic duties and turnout yesterday was low. The complexity of the issues was another discouraging factor.

"This is the third poll they've had in three months and Italians have gone into election fatigue," commented James Walston, professor of politics at the American University in Rome.

"Very few people know what they are voting for. It's another example of why a referendum is a very blunt instrument for enacting political change."

But unlike the referendum last year on assisted fertility, when senior Church figures urged voters to abstain and only a minority bothered to vote, in this constitutional reform no quorum is required. If three people in the whole country voted yes and two no, the reform would carry.

Mr Prodi and senior ministers in his government have thrown their weight behind the "no" vote. "Vote 'no' or Italy will become ungovernable," exhorted Mr Prodi.

"The constitution cannot be reformed in such a messy and improvised fashion. This reform would have as a consequence the division of the country clearly in two, and above all it would make it ungovernable."

Mr Berlusconi claimed that the reform, if passed, "will align Italy with other European countries".

As it stands, according to the present constitution, he went on, "there is a weakness in the function of the prime minister which it would correct.

Now he is at the service of the political parties. A 'yes' vote is, therefore, essential to improve the way government functions."

If the reform is rejected, he warned "we would turn the clock back 30 years to a time in which government and opposition were incapable of passing reforms".

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