Referendum in Italy, is Berlusconi losing again?

After losing municipal elections in Milan and Naples, the government stand on the referendum is clear: “the vote on these questions is partisan and useless, as we already provided the people with a new law on the nuclear issue.”.

What is the law about? “Suspending the nuclear adoption for one more year, so that the people will forget Fukushima and be more relaxed about the issue” – as italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi candidly admitted on prime time tv.

After more than 1 year of collecting signatures (500.000 are necessary for the referendum to take place), the activist groups behind the referendum campaign in Italy are speaking louder against mainstream media accused of being dependent on the government.

In less than 2 weeks, Italy faces a new referendum which will decide the future of water ownership, the use of nuclear energy and the special immunity clause from trial for the government members in service. Abrogating rules can be complicated, but activists are convinced this a “civil battle”.

Since 1946, date of the first referendum in Italy, when the people opted for a Republic instead of a Monarchy, the country has lived up its expectations to be a democratic, pluralistic society where freedom and participation would be synonims and all citizens could speak out their mind freely.

It was then the turn of divorce, abortion, and many other referendums which involved big masses of citizens in the making of a new, modern Italy where freedom of speech went along with the right to be informed.

Even during the bloody 70’s, despite harsh social clashes and political extremism, the freedom of press was granted for any radical propaganda or information. However, with the rapid decline of printed media, italians seem to have split up in two categories: those who watch TV and those who don’t.

First invented as a means to foster participation and democractic values, the referendum has heavily relied on mass medias to reach its goals, as the results will be valid only if 50% + 1 of the people who can vote will do so, in so called “quorum”.

It was prime minister Bettino Craxi in 1991 who first explicitly called on the people to boycott the referendum vote and “go to the beach”, so that the government couldn’t be overrun by the people. Since then, every government has tried to set the date for referendum questions the nearest possible to summertime, so that the people would be tempted to enjoy some sea breeze instead of voting on too difficult matters.

If the questions are too complicated though, the same can be said of the structure of National television Rai, which is directly controlled from the Parliament and therefore by the majority in power, whose delegates repeatedly prevented the Commission at Rai from reaching an agreement on the share of time to be dedicated to each question.

Overcomplication seems to be a leitmotiv in italian democracy, as it is necessary to plan ahead of time every single minute, channel and guests to be invited at the referendum debates. With one month of late, Rai finally issued a Regulation to be respected by public TV and Radio for the last days of campaign. 

Too little, too late for the oppositions, who called for protests and squatting of public places to claim for a fair amount (and quality) of information on the referendum.

After 1987, when italians already said “NO” to nuclear energy through a referendum, the same question is posed today, and the campaigners hope this choice will break the spell of the “no quorum” outcome. It’s since 1995 that quorum is not reached, also due to lack of mainstream media affection to the themes.

On one side we have an activist minority who will certainly vote YES in order to maintain a non profit public system of water, no nuclear energy and also abolish the law which grants a right for any minister not to go to Tribunal based on their institutional agenda. A law especially designed for Berlusconi, as the referendum proponents argue, so that he will not be forced to be present during his ongoing trials.

On the other hand, the people who missed out on the referendums in the last decades are wondering once again if this time they should skip the beach and go vote. Since longtime the referendum campaigns have been focused on a “political vote” Vs a “political abstention”, instead of discussing the YES or NO.

This has led to a debate between government and anti-government activists rather than to a real, informative discussion about the contents of the referendum, which the government itself tried to put on silent mode by approving minor laws which should address the issues before the referendum took place.

Can we hope for any better democracy, if the mainstream media is still in the grip of the political power in place?

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franatopos (said about 6 years ago)

published on European Journalism Centre magazine


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