Autonomy votes in Italy called ‘a lesson in democracy’

October 23, 2017

Northern League leader Matteo Salvini gives the thumbs up to reporters as he arrives for a news conference at the party headquarters, in Milan, Italy, Monday, Oct. 23, 2017. The presidents of Italy's wealthy northern regions of Veneto and Lombardy on Sunday claimed victory in autonomy referendums that seek to grab additional powers and tax revenue from Rome, riding a global tide of self-determination that has swamped Spain's Catalonia region. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)

MILAN (AP) — Two successful referendums seeking greater autonomy for two wealthy regions in Italy were “a lesson in democracy for Europe,” the head of the right-wing Northern League party said Monday.

Voters in Lombardy and Veneto in northern Italy overwhelmingly supported ballot measures Sunday for their local governments to acquire more powers from Rome. The peaceful votes reflect the same drive for greater self-determination seen in Spain’s conflict-ridden Catalonia region.

“Five and a half million citizens yesterday chose to vote, which tells us that there is high hope for the future in Italy,” said Northern League party leader Matteo Salvini, whose party controls both regions. “The reforms start from the bottom.”

Regional leaders are seeking more autonomy over issues such as education, immigration, security and the environment, as well as retaining more tax revenue, on the basis of the popular votes Sunday.

In Veneto, 98 percent of voters supported the referendum and in Lombardy 96 percent did.

The presidents of the highly productive regions, which account for 30 percent of Italy’s GDP, hope to leverage the votes to open autonomy negotiations with Premier Paolo Gentiloni.

In a sign of potential difficulties ahead, members of Gentiloni’s government have already signaled that fiscal autonomy and security would not be part of any future discussions.

Analysts say the broad autonomy that was sold to voters will be hard, if not impossible, to win.

“If they get it, everyone will want it,” said political analyst Roberto D’Alimonte of Rome’s Luiss University. “At that point, Italy would be some sort of federal state.”

But such a fundamental shift also doesn’t take into account the challenge of maintaining Italy’s high public debt level of 130 percent of GDP “if everyone wants to keep their tax money.”

“These people are deluding themselves,” he said. “Any significant change can only occur if the Northern League goes to power. Then they are talking.”

Unlike the Oct. 1 independence vote in Catalonia, the non-binding Lombardy and Veneto referendums didn’t ask voters if they want to break away from Italy and were approved by Italy’s constitutional court.

“We chose a peaceful, legitimate path,” Salvini said.

Veneto President Luca Zaia and Lombardy President Roberto Maroni said they would involve mayors, business people and experts in drafting their negotiating positions and estimated the talks with Rome could begin in 20 days.

But experts say it’s unlikely that serious talks can begin until after Italy’s election next year.

“This process risks opening a Pandora’s box and setting in motion widespread centrifugal forces within Italy,” said analyst Lorenzo Codogno.

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