June 26, 2006

Italian reforms appear headed to defeat

By Rachel Sanderson

ROME (Reuters) - Italian voters appeared to have rejected
constitutional reforms that would have strengthened the prime
minister's powers and given regions greater autonomy, early
ballot counting showed on Monday.

A defeat in the two-day referendum would strengthen Prime
Minister Romano Prodi, who campaigned against the reforms
saying they would wreck national unity, weaken the president
and cost billions of euros.

For his rival, former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, the
failure of reforms supported by his centre-right bloc could
call into question his leadership of the opposition.

With votes counted in more than 14,000 of Italy's nearly
61,000 polling stations, 65.2 percent had voted against the
constitution overhaul, while 34.8 percent were in favor, the
Interior Ministry said.

A computer projection by pollster Nexus based on partial
results forecast 59.4 percent of voters had voted against the
constitutional change, while 40.6 percent had voted in favor.

The final official result was due later on Monday.

The constitutional reforms were passed by Berlusconi's
government before it lost elections in April, but they required
backing from a referendum. A simple majority of those voting is
enough to either block or approve the changes.


The media tycoon pushed the reforms through parliament
during his last months in power, saying they would end Italy's
half century of revolving governments.

One of Berlusconi's allies, the Northern League party, has
raised the possibility of leaving the centre-right if the
referendum fails.

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.

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

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.