MILAN (AP) — The passage of a pair of referendums seeking greater autonomy for two wealthy regions in Italy was "a lesson in democracy for Europe," the head of Italy's right-wing Northern League party said Monday.
Voters in the neighboring Lombardy and Veneto regions overwhelmingly supported ballot measures Sunday that ask the regions to acquire more power from Rome. The peaceful votes reflect the same drive for greater self-determination that has been conflict-ridden in Spain's Catalonia region, party leader Matteo Salvini said.
"Five and a half million citizens yesterday chose to vote, which tells us that there is high hope for the future in Italy," Salvini, whose party controls both regions, said. "The reforms start from the bottom, notwithstanding vested interests."
Regional leaders are seeking to take over such government functions as education, immigration, security and the environment, as well as retaining more tax revenue, on the basis of the popular opinion expressed Sunday.
Unlike the Oct. 1 independence vote in Catalonia, the non-binding Lombardy and Veneto referendums didn't ask voters if they want to break away from Italy. The Italian measures also were approved by Italy's constitutional court. Catalan leaders went forward with their referendum after Spain's Constitutional Court had ordered it suspended.
"We chose a peaceful, legitimate path," Salvini said.
In Veneto, 98 percent of voters supported the referendum. The yes vote received 96 percent in Lombardy.
The presidents of the highly productive regions, which account for 30 percent of Italy's GDP, hope to leverage the resounding yes votes to open autonomy negotiations with Premier Paolo Gentiloni.
The drives are based largely on views that the government in Rome is inefficient and that money from the north is siphoned off to subsidize the south.
Along with the Northern League, the populist 5-Star Movement and former Premier Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia party supported the two referendums. Some renegade mayors from the center-left Democratic Party, which leads the Rome government, did as well.
Critics of the referendums say they carry no legal weight, were unnecessary to launch negotiations and wasted resources.
In a sign of potential difficulties ahead, members of Gentiloni's government have already signaled that fiscal autonomy and security would not be on the table during any future discussions.
Veneto President Luca Zaia retorted that the regions' planned to negotiate with the premier, not members of his Cabinet. Both he and Lombardy President Roberto Maroni said they would involve mayors, business people and experts in drafting their negotiating positions. They said the talks could begin in 20 days.
Political analyst Lorenzo Codogno said the negotiations are likely to last a year, if not longer.
"Although not threatening the unity of the state, this process risks opening a Pandora's box and setting in motion widespread centrifugal forces within Italy," Codogno said.
Under Italy's 1946 constitution, autonomy was granted to five regions in recognition of their special characters: largely German-speaking Trentino-Alto Adige; French-speaking Aosta; the islands of Sicily and Sardinia; and Friuli-Venezia Giulia, for its geographic position facing what is now the former Yugoslavia during the Cold War.
That left 15 ordinary regions under the central government's control.
Veneto, heir to a much truncated version of the once-vast Venetian Republic, has been blocked from seeking fiscal autonomy and even independence in the past.
Salvini has been working to make the Northern League a national force and said he wants to make autonomy for all of Italy's ordinary regions part of the party's platform in the national election next spring.