By Tom Gill
They started at dawn in Rome, draping a banner across the Colloseum. Later today they will be on Florence’s Ponte Vecchio and 1,500 other locations across the peninsula with a finale in the capital’s Piazza del Popolo. Campaigners for Italy’s four referenda to repeal laws on water privatisation, nuclear power and the prime minister’s immunity from prosecution have high hopes of reaching the quorum of over 50%.
Most significantly a win on Sunday and Monday, it will be a major blow to premier Silvio Berlusconi who is still reeling from a humiliating defeat in local and regional elections last month.
The right wing media mogul faces four trials on charges of corruption, fraud, embezzlement and, in the most recent case, paying an underage woman for sex and abusing his power to cover up the relationship. In January, the constitutional court partially overturned his immunity from prosecution guaranteed under the so-called “legitimate impediment” law. One of a string of laws tailored to suit the billionaire, an abrogative “yes” vote this weekend will finish it off.
The premier has also been a major exponent of expanding nuclear power, although after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, he put plans on ice for a year. Italy has had a ban on any industry expansion since 1987, when the electorate, deeply suspicious of nuclear power after Chernobyl, voted for a moratorium.
Supporters of Berlusconi’s view say there is no renewable source that can possibly provide the amount of energy necessary to the industrial infrastructure of the country, and besides there are plenty of them just on the other side of the border so fears of nuclear catastrophes are irrational. However, the nuclear program will be extremely expensive, the time it will take for the new power stations to be ready is so long that the technology used may be obsolete. Most importantly the country has many areas at risk of earthquake, and since by law public contracts must be awarded to the lowest bidder, there are very serious concerns about how safe the power stations would be.
Forty-seven million Italians will also be called upon to decide whether to curtail the privatisation of water distribution in the country, which is still largely controlled by local authorities. If successful, the referendum would overturn plans to hand over water supply to private companies, or mixed public-private enterprises where the private investor holds at least 40 per cent. In addition it would put a stop to plans to make local authorities with a stake in utilities listed on the stock exchange reduce their shareholding gradually to a maximum of 30 per cent by the end of 2015. A separate referendum will also cap the returns to investors.
Banks and local and foreign utility companies – set to make a packet from the marketisation of this most basic of human necessities argue that there isn’t the public funds to modernise the system. Italy currently loses on average 30 per cent of its water through leaky pipes and theft. But campaigners, which include the Forum Italiano dei Movimenti per l’Acqua, a network of national associations and local committees, and trade unions, argue that water is a common good and a universal right: it cannot be subject to the laws of the free market.
Even if the referenda organisers are at pains to emphasise that this is not a party political issue, they will have major political consequences. Berlusconi has opposed the referenda from the start, and this week confirmed this position, declaring he wouldn’t be casting his vote. The leader of coalition partner Northern League Umberto Bossi has declared his solidarity with Berlusconi on this matter.
But members of Berlusconi’s own party are wavering, as are some of Bossi’s troops. Meanwhile, the opposition, including former “postfascist” ally Gianfranco Fini have all rallied in support. Most embarrassingly, Berlusconi boycott has been challenged by the President of the Republic, Giorgio Napolitano, who has reminded Italians that it was their duty as citizens to participate.
The largest component of the opposition, the centre-left Democrats, will for certain benefit from a positive result, although as in the local elections last month they will not necessarily be the real victors. They have been late converts to the campaign, particularly in regard to water privatisation as they were on the side of the privateers when they were last in power in 2006-2008. Remarkably similiar legislation to that now being challenged – not enacted partly because of opposition from communists – would have been signed off by Antonio di Pietro who at the time was the minister of infrastructure and an enthusiastic supporter.
However, di Pietro – founder of the Italy of Values (IdV) movement which is on the ascendant after fellow former public prosecutor and IdV party member Luigi de Magistris was elected mayor of Naples last month -will come out roses from this campaign. He has been the most high profile critic of Berlusconi over his legal battles and scandalous conflict of interest between political, media and business interests, and led the campaign for the referendum on “legitimate impediment”.
A positive result will also give a lift to the communist Left Federation and the radical green-red movement of Puglia governor Nichi Vendola, who have been working hard to galvanise support for the referendums too. This will add to their rising fortunes after they too did well in local polls last month.
Even if there will be no party symbols visible, there will be great gathering of the opposition today in Rome’s Piazza del Popolo, uncomfortably close to the prime minister’s residence in Palazzo Chigi. There is no disputing that a victory for the referenda this weekend will also be a victory for the Left.