Vaiju Naravane

Paris: Italy's former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi appears to be heading for political oblivion with his third electoral defeat in almost as many months.

Over 62 per cent of Italians rejected a referendum on constitutional change proposed by Mr Berlusconi when he was Prime Minister that would have given more autonomy to the country's rich northern regions and effectively divided the country into two.

Crushing poll defeat

Earlier this month, Mr Berlusconi, who lost parliamentary elections last May, suffered a crushing defeat in mayoral elections with towns like Naples, Rome and Bologna going to the Centre-Left alliance led by Prime Minister Romano Prodi. "This vote strengthens the Government," said Defence Minister Arturo Parisi.

The referendum asked the people to approve granting greater autonomy to the regions and increasing the powers of the Prime Minister against Parliament and the President.

Mr. Prodi's Government claimed the reforms would create a divide between the economically prosperous north and the poorer south, as well as reduce Parliament's powers. Opponents also saw the reforms as an attack on the 1947 Constitution, a text considered sacrosanct in the context of Italian democracy after fascism.

As expected, the `no' vote was particularly strong in the south, with 74.9 per cent, and in the centre of the country with 68 per cent. In Mr. Berlusconi's base in the north, the rejection was less emphatic, with 53 per cent ticking the `no' box.

The call for the referendum was made by the xenophobic Northern League party which regards even Sicilians as "foreign". Umberto Bossi, the league's leader, unashamedly says the hard-working north is tired of subsidising the lazy south. A `yes' vote would have allowed regions to use funds independently and would have given them effective control over taxation, schools and social welfare schemes.

The referendum's supporters argued that the reforms would provide greater political stability given Italy's post-World War II track record of more than 50 governments.