June 26, 2006

Italy rejects overhaul in blow to Berlusconi

By Rachel Sanderson

ROME (Reuters) - Italians resoundingly rejected a proposal
to overhaul Italy's constitution on Monday as voters rewarded
the new government and delivered a fresh blow to former Prime
Minister Silvio Berlusconi two months after he lost power.

Results from all polling stations except those overseas
showed 61.7 percent of the voters in a two-day, nationwide
referendum turned down the plan to strengthen the prime
minister's powers and give more autonomy to the regions.

The result was a fillip for new Prime Minister Romano
Prodi, who campaigned against the changes arguing they would
wreck national unity, weaken the president and cost billions of

"This reinforces the (governing) coalition," Defense
Minister Arturo Parisi told Sky Italia television.

The referendum was especially important to Berlusconi,
whose future as opposition leader could now be in doubt after
he narrowly lost April's elections to the center left.

"This is a clear defeat for Berlusconi," Oliviero
Diliberto, head of the Italian Communists, said.

Alessandra Mussolini, granddaughter of wartime dictator
Benito Mussolini and leader of a splinter centre-right party,
said: "The entire center right will have to take stock as one
of its major planks has been rejected."

Partial results showed heavy turnout across the country and
a "No" vote even in the north, where the center right's
devolution lobby was strongest.

Franco Pavoncello, president of John Cabot University in
Rome, said before the results that a "No" vote could be "the
beginning of the waning of Berlusconi's political career."

Nearly six hours after the polls closed, Berlusconi said he
was "saddened" by the result. He had called an emergency
meeting with members of his centre-right bloc, local news
agencies added.


Berlusconi pushed the constitutional changes through
parliament in a flurry of activity during his last months in
power, saying they would end Italy's half century of
revolving-door governments.

The referendum was needed because the measure won only a
narrow majority in parliament last November instead of the
two-thirds support that would have triggered the changes.

"Constitutional reforms need the broadest possible support
and not just that of the governing majority," Prodi said,
announcing that his coalition would now seek cross-party
agreement on both constitutional and electoral reforms.

While Prodi's center left fought the reforms that were put
to vote this week, it might support a strengthening of the
prime minister's powers and a reduction in the number of

The changes would have given Italy's 20 regions autonomy
over health, schooling and policing, a move critics said would
mean better services for richer northern regions to the
detriment of the poorer south.

Regional autonomy was a priority for the Northern League, a
small, raucous member of the centre-right bloc that has
threatened to quit unless the referendum passed -- a move that
would undercut Berlusconi's leadership.