June 26, 2006

Italy holds vote to overhaul constitution

By Nelson Graves

ROME (Reuters) - Italy held a second day of voting on
Monday in a referendum that could rewrite the constitution to
strengthen the prime minister's powers and give regions greater

Proponents, led by ex-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, say
the referendum could end the nation's half century of revolving
governments and save money by slashing the number of lawmakers.

But Prime Minister Romano Prodi's centre-left coalition, in
power for just over one month, says the changes would split the
nation, weaken the widely revered office of the president and
end up costing the country billions of euros.

Two days of balloting will end at 3 p.m. (1300 GMT).

On the first day of balloting on Sunday, 35 percent of the
nearly 50 million eligible voters had voted, more than at the
last constitutional referendum in 2001.

Each side claimed the relatively hefty turnout favored its
chances. The centre-right opposition said the greatest numbers
had voted in the north, where the separatist Northern League
which spearheaded the drive for regional autonomy has its

But Prodi's allies said heavy turnout in centre-left
strongholds in the center pointed to the referendum's defeat.

The vote is the first national political test since Prodi
narrowly beat Berlusconi in April's election.


A win for Berlusconi could strengthen his hold on the
opposition. But Prodi said a victory for the "yes" camp would
not undermine his fragile majority.

"It's not my government's destiny that's at stake, but
rather Italy's," the prime minister said on Sunday.

Northern League leader Umberto Bossi vowed to pursue his
northern region's 20-year struggle for separate status by
appealing to the United Nations if necessary.

"If the North votes for the referendum, it means we can go
to the U.N. and claim our rights," he said.

Berlusconi's centre-right coalition pushed through the most
radical overhaul of Italy's 58-year-old constitution before
being ousted from power. But it needed to be put to a
referendum because it failed to win a two-thirds majority in

Critics say the constitution -- drawn up after World War
Two to prevent the return of a dictator like Benito Mussolini
-- ensures administrations that on average last barely a year.

The changes would strengthen the prime minister by allowing
him to dismiss ministers and dissolve parliament.

But Prodi said the measures would "turn the President of
the Republic into a powerless notary."

The referendum would give Italy's 20 regions full autonomy
over health, schooling and policing, a move critics say would
benefit the north at the expense of the poorer south.

In a move supported by many voters fed up with politicians
in Rome, the measure would cut the number of lawmakers.

Berlusconi says that would save money, but Prodi says
duplication of responsibilities between the capital and regions
would end up costing the nation hundreds of billions of euros.