Italy’s wealthiest regions, Lombardy and Veneto, are holding referendums on October 22 to try to obtain more autonomy from the central government. The votes, however, bear little similarity to the Catalan referendum on October 1, judged unlawful by the Spanish Constitutional Court.
The two bordering regions, led by the right-wing Northern League, are not asking for independence but for greater autonomy on a variety of issues.
Here are 10 things you need to know about the votes:
1. Who, how and where
Around 11 million voters (out of 60 million Italians) will decide if they want their regional governments to claim more powers from Rome. Polling stations are open from 7am to 11pm, with voters required to cast their ballots in person – it won’t be possible to take part from abroad or by mail.
2. A simple question?
The referendums have no binding consequences for regional lawmakers. Voters living in Veneto will be asked: Do you want Veneto to be given further forms and particular conditions of autonomy? while citizens of Lombardy will be asked: Do you want the Lombardy Region, in the framework of national unity, to start the necessary institutional initiatives to ask the State the devolution of subsequent particular forms and conditions of autonomy, with the corresponding resources, in the way and and for the purposes provided in Article 116, Paragraph 3 of the Constitution?
3. Why vote?
Lombardy is Italy’s commercial hub and accounts for roughly a fifth of the country’s gross domestic product, while Veneto produces just under 10 percent of the national GDP. Tax remains the key issue at the heart of Northern League strategy. Its politicians, including Veneto and Lombardy governors Luca Zaia and Roberto Maroni, used to openly call for a secession from Rome.
Many residents resent seeing a large part of their taxes used to help finance services in poorer southern regions.
A few years ago, Italy’s Constitutional Court threw out Zaia’s original plan to ask voters if they wanted Veneto to secede from Italy or keep control of 80 percent of tax revenue collected in the region.
4. The vote is totally legal, but needless
The referendum is constitutionally lawful. The 1948 text offers Italian regions the option of asking the government for more autonomy within 20 areas, including foreign trade, labour rights, health, energy policies and transportation. Before now, however, the option had never been invoked by ordinary regions.
Regions are permitted to negotiate with Rome on these issues without a specific popular mandate.
5. So why are people voting?
Right-wing politicians insist on the need for more autonomy in areas such as immigration, taxation and safety, which fall under state competence. The law even forbids Zaia and Maroni from negotiating a “Special Administrative” status without holding a national, constitutional referendum.
The two governors seek to obtain a “stronger popular mandate” to negotiate with Rome.
However, many critics have already branded the move as populist and “procedurally useless” – Lombardy will vote for a new regional council in 2018 and the referendum is considered the beginning of the electoral campaign.
Next year, parliamentary elections are due across the country and Northern League campaigners hope the move will boost their support.
6. The first “digital-first” vote
The combined round of polling will cost more than 60 million euros. Lombardy will experiment for the first time in the history of the country with a form of digital voting, investing 23 million euros in tablets which will be later redistributed to schools. Veneto will use more old-fashioned ballot paper.
7. All parties seem to support it
Despite being a Northern League idea, almost all parties have spoken in favour of the referendums.
All centre-right politicians agree with the necessity of greater local autonomy, and former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said “every region should hold a similar referendum”.
Even the Democratic Party, already engrossed in the campaign for next year’s general election, has not openly opposed it.
The mayor of Milan, centre-left Giuseppe Sala, has urged voters to say “yes” to the proposition, as have Rome-based politicians such as Gianni Alemanno and Francesco Storace.
8. What happens if ‘yes’ wins?
This is the most likely scenario. People who show up at the polling stations are expected to vote in favour of more regional autonomy.
Lombardy and Veneto will ask the national government to open negotiations to discuss what matters will be reviewed and how the power balance would shift from Rome to Milan and Venice. The agreement would then need to be approved by parliament.
9. What happens if ‘no’ wins?
Nothing happens. Regional governors will still be able to negotiate a better deal for their territories with the central government within the constitutional framework.
10. The Venezuelan connection
Last but not least, controversies have arisen over the software company chosen by Lombardy to set up the voting system.
Venezuelan-owned multinational company Smartmatic is known for producing electronic solutions for votes, but also for partnering up with the Venezuelan government during elections, where poll results have frequently been met with allegations of irregularities.
The company has also been under investigation in the US after a 2006 municipal primary election in Chicago in which voting machines were blamed for delays and irregularities.