Italians vote on nuclear, water policies

AP News
Posted: Jun 10, 2011 6:37 AM
Italians vote on nuclear, water policies

Premier Silvio Berlusconi would rather Italians head to the beach and not to the polls this weekend.

Referendums on the ballot Sunday and Monday seek to block the Italian leader's plans to revive nuclear energy and privatize the water supply. Another would throw out a law that gives Berlusconi and other top officials some protection from prosecution.

In the face of the government's attempt to delegitimize the referendums, campaigners are going to lengths to boost turnout above the 51-percent majority needed to validate the vote, a quorum not reached in Italy since 1995 in more than 20 attempts.

Nuns and priests held a fast to protest against the privatization of water and anti-Berlusconi social networking campaigns have been spreading the word to vote.

If a quorum is to be reached, it will likely to be due to the fresh memories of the March 11 nuclear disaster in Japan, triggered by the powerful quake and resulting tsunami.

Italy, also a seismically active country, shut down its nuclear power program in a 1987 referendum following the Chernobyl disaster. Although the referendum was legally binding for only five years, its political staying power proved more durable.

Berlusconi pledged in 2009 to revive nuclear power to reduce dependence on expensive foreign oil and natural gas. Nuclear proponents claim third-generation plants envisioned for Italy are "intrinsically safe" and would have withstood a quake and tsunami of the same force _ a point that environmentalists are not ready to concede.

The government fought to keep the hot-button nuclear issue off the ballot, abrogating its own law to allow time for reflection, which critics say was a move to render moot the referendum.

Courts held that the referendum, backed by 750,000 signatures, could go ahead while critics complained that the government was trying impose a silence until the emotional impact of the Japan disaster had muted.

Two referendums on water were spearheaded by civil society, which wants to undo a 2009 law that requires all city administrations to privatize the water system by the end of this year and the application of market rules to water pricing. Previously, local municipalities had the choice whether to run public services directly, or outsource.

Campaigners warn that the strict deadline will force down the prices of the public utilities, and that private owners are more likely to raise the prices of delivery of water to homes. They cite instances in Sicily where bottled water companies also control tap water _ which they turn off for hours at a time.

"We need to have an institutional system that is not motivated by profit but by sustainability," said University of Turin law professor Ugo Mattei who drafted the referendum,

The final referendum is the closest to a direct swipe at Berlusconi, as the opposition seeks to strike down completely legislation that allows the Italian leader _ and other top officials _ to claim a legitimate impediment to facing trial. Italy's highest court this year weakened the law _ allowing four cases against Berlusconi to proceed in Milan, but the referendum would remove the possibility for high officials to claim that official business prevents their appearance in court on a hearing-to-hearing basis.

Unlike local elections two weeks ago that dealt a blow to Berlusconi, the government is stopping short of calling the vote a referendum on its broader performance. That strategy backfired when Berlusconi's candidates were voted out in such key tests as Berlusconi's native Milan and trash-plagued Naples.

Still, Berlusconi and his ministers are emphasizing that the vote is a right, not a duty, and have announced plans to abstain.

"It will be another setback," if the referendums pass, said Roberto D'Alimonte, a political scientist at Rome's LUISS University. "But will this jeopardize the government? I think not."


Paolo Santalucia contributed from Rome.