Berlusconi faces another test with Italy referendums

Reuters News
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Posted: Jun 14, 2011 2:30 AM
Berlusconi faces another test with Italy referendums

By Philip Pullella

ROME (Reuters) - Italians vote in four referendums Sunday and Monday that could strike a new blow against Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is still stinging from heavy local election losses last month.

The center-left opposition has been leading a spirited campaign to get the voters out to cast their ballots on the questions, which concern the privatization of water utilities, nuclear energy and whether government ministers can be exempt from attending trials against them.

A central issue will be whether enough voters turn out to ensure the necessary quorum of 50 percent plus one vote. But if they repeal existing laws by voting yes, the result will likely have repercussions on his fractious center-right coalition.

Saturday newspapers said the opposition was confident that the quorum would be reached, which would be a setback to Berlusconi because his ministers have urged voters to either boycott the polls or vote no.

For some, the votes will be a way to demonstrate their disappointment with Berlusconi himself, who is facing a lurid sex scandal and three fraud trials.

The referendum on nuclear power is the most emotive of the four, in the wake of the disaster at Japan's Fukushima reactor in March. Polls say most Italians are against nuclear energy, which they consider unsafe in a country prone to earthquakes.

Berlusconi is a big proponent of nuclear power, which the center right says is indispensable for the future of a country that imports nearly all its energy.

Last year the government passed a law to re-start a nuclear energy program, which was halted in 1987 by another referendum. Aware of the likely backlash following Fukushima, the government has suspended the plans but a referendum could block atomic power for decades.

Another referendum would repeal the so-called "legitimate impediment" that allows ministers to skip trial hearings against them on if they are on government business, which Berlusconi's critics say is for his personal benefit.

Two others concern the privatization of water utilities. The government says privatization is essential to finance better services. Opponents say it would just lead to higher prices.