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Referendum results kill Italy’s nuclear plans as Berlusconi’s future uncertain

Italy's nuclear revival is officially dead and the "no" vote seems likely to accelerate the meltdown of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's career.

After two days of voting, four binding referendum questions passed and each went overwhelmingly against Mr. Berlusconi wishes. In one referendum, voters blocked the centre-right government's plan to construct nuclear power plans. Two others blocked the privatization of municipal water utilities.

The outcome of the fourth referendum abolished his right not to appear in court by claiming a conflict with official duties. Mr. Berlusconi, 74, is being tried in Milan for allegedly paying an underage nightclub dancer for sex. In three other trials, he faces tax-evasion, fraud and bribery charges, each related to his family's control of Mediaset, the market-leading commercial broadcaster that turned him into a billionaire.

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Mr. Berlusconi's defeat had more to do with the man and his plunging popularity than the referendums themselves, political observers and opposition politicians said. "More than the substance of the laws, most of them were making a clear statement of their distaste for the Prime Minister," said James Walston, professor of international relations at the American University of Rome.

Pier Luigi Bersani, head of the Democratic Party, the biggest opposition party, called on Mr. Berlusconi to resign immediately. "This has been a referendum on the divorce between the government and the country," he said at a press conference in Rome.

Mr. Berlusconi might have been able to shrug off the referendum defeats had his political fortunes not already been in a nosedive. Two weeks ago, Mr. Berlusconi's candidate in Milan, his home town and traditional power base, suffered a resounding loss in a run-off municipal election. Mayoral candidates he had supported in other big cities, including Turin and Naples, were also crushed.

Since then, the anti-Berlusconi media, both nationally and internationally, has gone on the attack. The cover story of the latest issue of The Economist magazine is about Mr. Berlusconi and is entitled "The man who screwed an entire country." The Times of London said "the Italian Prime Minister is a political vegetable – one that's riddled with E. Coli."

While Mr. Berlusconi gave no sign that he would step down or call an early election – his government is supposed to run until 2013 – his coalition partner, Umberto Bossi of the Northern League party, is clearly losing his patience with the Prime Minister. "Berlusconi has lost the ability to communicate on television," Mr. Bossi said after the referendum defeat. "That's the simple truth."

Roberto Calderoli, a Northern league government minister, said his party was growing weary of being "slapped around" by voters who are fed up with Mr. Berlusconi.

The rejection of Italy's nuclear revival marks a big victory for the anti-nuclear lobby. In a referendum in 1987, Italians voted to close the country's nuclear plants. Mr. Berlusconi pushed hard to restart the nuclear program, using French technology. Construction was supposed to start no later than 2015.

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But public fear about nuclear accidents made the program a hard sell and the post-earthquake nuclear disaster in Japan all but ensured the Italian nuclear program would get killed in the referendum. "We shall have to say goodbye to nuclear," Mr. Berlusconi said at a press conference in Rome. He promised that his government would push renewable energy instead.

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About the Author
European Columnist

Eric Reguly is the European columnist for The Globe and Mail and is based in Rome. Since 2007, when he moved to Europe, he has primarily covered economic and financial stories, ranging from the euro zone crisis and the bank bailouts to the rise and fall of Russia's oligarchs and the merger of Fiat and Chrysler. More

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