June 25, 2006

Italy votes in referendum opposed by Prodi

By Phil Stewart

ROME (Reuters) - Italians began voting on Sunday in a
two-day referendum that could herald the biggest constitutional
shake-up in half a century if Prime Minister Romano Prodi fails
to convince the country to reject it.

Prodi, whose office of prime minister would be strengthened
by the reforms, says the package will wreck national unity,
weaken the president and cost the nation more than 250 billion
euros ($315 billion) to implement.

Former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose centre-right
coalition championed the reforms before being ousted from power
in April elections, says they will regenerate Italy's
antiquated system of government.

Italy's constitution was drawn up after World War Two with
the aim of preventing the return of a dictator like Benito
Mussolini. But critics say it contains so many checks and
balances that it has been hard to govern, with many post-war
administrations surviving barely a year.

The referendum gives Berlusconi a sorely needed chance to
reassert himself as leader of the centre-right "House of
Freedoms" coalition after he lost the national elections and
then failed to win key seats in local polls last month.

"The House of Freedoms wants a respite from repeated defeat
with a document that destroys the constitution," Prodi said in
the run-up to the vote, urging Italians to vote "no."

"It's an insult to our country and a distortion of the
rules that govern Italy."

The polls opened on Sunday at 0600 GMT and close at 1300
GMT on Monday, when first projections will be released.

Both sides have predicted victory but commentators say
uncertainty over the turnout makes it impossible to call the


The referendum would give Italy's 20 regions full autonomy
over health, schooling and policing, a move critics say would
mean better services for richer northern regions, to the
detriment of the poorer south.

It will also transform the upper house Senate into a
federal, rather than national legislative body and give the
prime minister more clout, enabling him or her to hire and fire
ministers and dissolve parliament.

This should effectively halt the common Italian practice by
which parties switch sides in mid-term and bring down a prime

The referendum is needed because the measure passed by only
a simple majority in parliament last November, when Berlusconi
was still prime minister, instead of the two-thirds majority
that would have made the changes automatic.

Former President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, urged Italians to
reject the changes, saying the constitution as it stands is
"beautiful, vital and more relevant than ever."

Prodi's ruling centre-left says the changes would give too
much power to the prime minister and weaken the role of the
president, who has traditionally been an impartial arbiter.