In a rebuke of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Italians went to the polls and voted against renewing nuclear power and privatizing water resources, both strongly supported by the Prime Minister. Further, Italians, increasingly tired of allegations leveled at Berlusconi, overturned a law that would have granted the 75-year-old immunity from prosecution. Moreover, despite Berlusconi’s best efforts to discourage a high voter turnout, 56 percent of the Italian electorate voted. Previous referendums had failed to meet the necessary legal quorum of 50 percent voter turnout. Additionally, Berlusconi, who holds providence over Italian media, relegated the impending referendum to second tier importance.
The referendum comes on the heels of defeat for Berlusconi backed mayoral candidates in Milan and Naples. Because Italian media largely ignored the referendum and the prime minister himself urged a boycott it fell on supporters of the poorly funded campaign to gin up support by relying on Twitter, Facebook and other social media. “In addition, the government propaganda machine has been widely employed to compromise the referendum. RAI – supposedly the Italian BBC – failed to inform the Italian public about the referendum. So deficient has been its referendum coverage that Agcom – the Italian Ofcom – repeatedly called for RAI to increase its coverage in order to better inform the public about the consultation. On the positive side, social media has, for the first time, been used to update people on the vote. Facebook, Twitter and blogs have been used to reach Italian people outside the zone of Berlusconi’s televisual control,” the Guardian’s Benedetta Brevini writes.
However, it should be noted that the Italians rejection of Berlusconi’s energy policy follows the trajectory of Germany, which announced that it no longer would consider nuclear power as the path to the future. Switzerland is considering becoming nuclear free by 2034. While the French continue to maintain that they will rely on nuclear power it is not at all clear whether this policy will ultimately survive. Immediately following Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster seven of the oldest German reactors were taken offline. By 2022, Germany plans on ending reliance on nuclear power. “We shall have to say good-bye to nuclear [energy],” Berlusconi told a Rome press conference following the referendum vote. He added that Italy would be pursuing renewable energies in the future.
While it is doubtful that Berlusconi’s government will fall in the short-term its long-term survival is in doubt. Within the next week a vote of confidence is planned in the Parliament. If Berlusconi suffers a defeat following this vote it is unlikely that his coalition will hold with the Northern League. Roberto d’Alimonte, Political Science professor at LUISS Guido Carli University suggests, “It’s getting worse and worse, the government is weaker and weaker, Berlusconi is surviving, muddling through…But there’s not yet the end in sight.” Berlusconi’s political problems largely stem from his own design. Italians look on in envy to other Eurozone states like Germany that is experiencing robust economic growth. The Economist aptly described Italy’s economy as “The euro’s Achilles heel.”
“Italy’s economic illness is not the acute sort, but a chronic disease that slowly gnaws away at vitality. When Europe’s economies shrink, Italy’s shrinks more; when they grow, it grows less…only Zimbabwe and Haiti had lower GDP growth than Italy in the decade to 2010. In fact GDP per head in Italy actually fell,” The Economist writes.
While nuclear and water privatization were defeated, these developments can largely be attributed to factors outside of Berlusconi’s control. Water privatization and reviving Italy’s nuclear power industry can be perceived as transcending party identification, as supporters of the prime minister would argue. In fact, the Vatican injected itself into the debate and argued that access to clean water is a basic human right. Bishop Mariano Crociata argued that access to clean water was a “fundamental human right, connected to the very right to life.” Additionally, within Berlusconi’s government, Roberto Maroni, the interior minister and a member of the Northern League, opposed water privatization.
As Italians fret over their economic future, Berlusconi became embroiled in scandals. Further, self-aware Italians became increasingly concerned that they were becoming international laughing stocks due to the supposed sexual exploits of their aged prime minister. Now that the prime minister is not protected from prosecution he is expected to be present at several trials. The most well known involves allegations that he paid for sex with an under-aged woman. The “Rubygate trial” has garnered international attention for the reason that the prime minister attempted to use his position to have the woman released after she had been arrested for allegedly stealing a €3,000 bracelet.
Other allegations involve the “Bunga Bunga” sex parties where as many as 33 women would attend and Berlusconi would have sex with any number of them hoping that this would propel their bourgeoning television careers in Berlusconi’s media empire. Allegations of sexual impropriety are not new for the prime minister. The fact that the allegations have been so heavily covered by Italian and international media has eroded the prime minister’s popularity. However scandalous the allegations are, the trial and eventual verdict will take years to unfold. By then, Berlusconi’s future might be decided by his inability to hold together his coalition with the Northern League.
Berlusconi’s political strength has been his ability to read the pulse of the Italian electorate. While he has previously been described as the “great communicator” his wanton disregard for keeping his alleged exploits hidden from public view indicated that he has lost touch with the Italian electorate and he has misjudged the ability of Italians to accept his many perceived faults.
Italians have witnessed their once admired economy falter as other economies have surpassed it. The public allegations against the prime minister have been an unwanted distraction from the very real problems facing Italians. Further, with the vote on confidence scheduled for next week in the Parliament, the time might be right for Berlusconi to reconsider whether his is willing to step down now or attempt to hold on to power and risk being forced out. “Next week there were be a vote on confidence in the Italian parliament. It is not in Mr. Berlusconi’s character to step down but he is increasingly an isolated figure. He has a fragile majority in parliament but almost certainly not in the country,” Gavin Hewitt of the BBC writes.