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Italian voters reject Berlusconi’s measures

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi faced fresh political uncertainty Tuesday after suffering a crushing loss at the polls that will make it more difficult for the longtime leader to keep his fragile government intact.

In two days of balloting Sunday and Monday, voters overwhelmingly rejected key elements of Berlusconi’s agenda in four referendums, including a plan to revive nuclear power and a measure to help Berlusconi and other legally embattled officials delay court proceedings against them.

It was the first time in 16 years that Italians overturned government policies by national referendum, which requires a voter turnout of more than 50% to come into force. Not only was that threshold easily crossed, but more than 90% of those who cast ballots did so against the government.

The result was further evidence that Italians have soured on their flamboyant leader, whose failure to jump-start a stalled economy and whose legal troubles, including charges that he paid for sex with a minor, have badly tarnished his reputation. Two weeks ago, Berlusconi and his center-right coalition suffered a humiliating defeat in local elections — even in his own hometown, Milan, where he had explicitly portrayed the vote for mayor as a judgment on himself.

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“A slap hurts but sometimes brings you to your senses,” Interior Minister Roberto Maroni said Tuesday, according to La Stampa newspaper.

Maroni belongs to the Northern League, partner to Berlusconi’s People of Freedom party in the ruling coalition, without whose support the premier would have no majority in Parliament.

But as public disenchantment with Berlusconi continues to grow, the Northern League may start distancing itself from him, undermining his ability to get things done and perhaps even forcing him to call early elections.

The regional party, which supports greater autonomy for the more affluent north, is already angry that Berlusconi has not delivered the tax cuts it wants. A confidence vote in Parliament next week should give a sign of the league’s intentions.

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In the referendums, Italians threw out a return to nuclear power, a plan to privatize water utilities and a law allowing government ministers to avoid having to appear in court. Rejection of the last measure was the strongest statement directly against Berlusconi, a media tycoon who has routinely introduced legislation designed to shield him and his companies from prosecution over alleged business irregularities.

Jubilant anti-Berlusconi activists celebrated in Rome on Monday night when the poll results began to show a resounding defeat for him.

Yet no one is predicting Berlusconi’s immediate downfall. His formidable political survival skills have been considerably abetted by the disarray of the opposition against him, which analysts say has kept him in power almost by default.

“Italians are fed up with the government. The high level of participation in the referendum demonstrates that Italians want change,” said Sergio Fabbrini, a political scientist at the LUISS Guido Carli university in Rome. “The bad news is that the opposition is still divided. There is no clear political leader.”

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henry.chu@latimes.com


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