It’s been a bad week for Berlusconi.
On Monday Bill Emmot in The Times said “the Italian Prime Minister is a political vegetable — one that’s riddled with E. coli” and predicted his imminent political demise. Then Ariel Levy produced an elegant eleven page description of Berlusconi sleaze in The New Yorker “Basta bunga bunga”. And now The Economist has produced yet another devastating dossier, this time by John Prideaux. The paper edition was “delayed for inspection” for a few hours at Rome airport on Friday
But the worst could yet be to come.
The last polls suggested that the 50% turnout was right in the middle of their range of uncertainty . Bersani confirmed the presumption in his final rally and Berlusconi’s own pronouncements give the same impression. A fortnight ago, he repeated that even if he lost Milan, it would make no difference to the government. His own polls were warning him of an impending disaster. He is doing the same now and one of his most loyal courtiers, Vittorio Feltri, now back as editor of the Berlusconi family paper Il Giornale wrote an explicit editorial today. “It would take a majority in Parliament to bring down the government”, not a defeat on the referendums.
True enough; but if Bossi and the Northern League decide that Berlusconi is a liability, then the government will lose its majority.
Despite protestations to the contrary from both sides, today’s vote is blatantly political – a single referendum on Berlusconi, not four on water, nuclear energy and “legitimate impediment” (the most explicitly anti-Berlusconi referendum). If they pass, it will be a blow against Berlusconi but once again, not a lethal one. Next week Bossi and the League have their annual get-together at Pontida (site of the supposed oath of the Lombards against Barbarossa in 1167) and he will certainly talk about the future of the government but is unlikely to blow it up then. After all, the League lost in the recent elections.
Losing the referendums would take us another step towards the end of the Berlusconi government and probable early elections.
It is far from certain that he will lose them. There is no doubt that the yes vote (to repeal all four laws) will win, but if there is no quorum (50%+1 of the electorate), the vote has no effect. There are two crucial figures 25,297,435 and 23, 678,940. If more than the first figure vote, there will be no doubt; the laws are repealed and Berlusconi suffers. Less than the second and nothing happens. The difference between the two figures are the 3.2m Italians resident abroad. They have the vote so they should be included in the total electorate; but there have been so many mistakes in letting them know, delivering their ballot papers, receiving completed votes, that the pro-referendum committees have already promised appeals if turnout is between 23.6 and 25.3 million and some have been already lodged. There will be work for lawyers and the Court of Cassation and probably the Constitutional Court. We will know soon after 15.00 tomorrow and the Court of Cassation has promised a verdict for Thursday 16 June.
In the meantime, Pierluigi Bersani of the Democratic Party encouraged his supporters to vote early knowing that if early turnout figures are good, it will encourage waverers to go. At 12.00 today, some 11% had already voted, a good figure, comparable to the last time a referendum reached a quorum in 1995.
Berlusconi and most of his cabinet have said they will not vote, hardly surprisingly. The centre-right mayor of Rome will vote and will the League’s president of the Veneto, Luca Zaia. A number of senior Italian churchmen like the archbishop of Turin have declared in favour of public ownership of water supplies and from the Vatican, Cardinal Turkson, head of Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace says instead that water is a common good, should be public.