Direct democracy may not always be the best—or paradoxically even the most democratic—form of government, but sometimes it’s a great breath of fresh air. On June 12–13 Italians voted “yes” on four referendums in a resounding defeat for the Berlusconi government. It came just two weeks after the center-right was roundly voted down in municipal elections across Italy, and was a blow that even some of Berlusconi’s own colleagues think the prime minister cannot survive. But it was more than that. This was a vote that went far beyond parochial Italian politics: a vote in which citizens had their say on how to manage natural resources and energy policy, a vote against the neoliberal axiom that “private is better,” against industry lobbies and powerful insiders with euro signs in their eyes, against the view that some of us are more equal than others.
Unlike those heated propositions on state and local taxes so familiar to Americans, these were national referendums on matters that all but define the term “public interest.” Two of them affirmed the principle that water is a collective, public good and may not be privatized or subject to automatic profit-making. A third said no to nuclear energy, a pilaster of the Berlusconi government energy policy even after the Fukushima nightmare in Japan. The last referendum abolished the special privilege the prime minister had granted himself and members of his cabinet to delay criminal trials by claiming loosely defined “legitimate impediments,” i.e., government and political duties. The legitimate impediment had already been partially struck down by the Constitutional Court. But apparently the voters felt it was important to assert that all Italians, even members of the government, should be equal before the law, just as the Constitution stipulates.
The vote was a triumph for word of mouth, above all. In order for a referendum to be valid in Italy, 50 percent plus one of eligible voters must go to the polls. And the government did everything to block that quorum. Berlusconi and his Northern League ally Umberto Bossi announced they didn’t intend to vote, reckoning the quorum would never be reached if their followers stayed home. The referendums were slated for a separate, third, poll date following the two-stage municipal elections in May, never mind the huge extra cost and the inconvenience for many of having to go to the polls three times in a month. Berlusconi’s Mediaset TV channels and the government-loyal main public TV channel RAI-1 gave very poor coverage to the upcoming vote, the latter actually announcing the wrong election dates during one news program. (To add insult to injury, the RAI-2 channel, controlled in part by the Northern League, also made the same “mistake” during one of its news reports.) Numbingly dull public service announcements—in dense bureaucratese “with an information content close to zero,” in the words of distinguished legal expert Stefano Rodotà—seemed designed to make the issues inscrutable.
Never mind. The resourceful referendum promoters found inventive ways to get their message across. During the Italian Cup soccer final, Greenpeace suspended a giant yellow and black “Stop Nuclear” banner in the stadium, a message visible on live TV for more than a minute and much seen in subsequent coverage. Scores of appearances by performers around Italy, impromptu concerts, street theater, nude runs, you name it, helped publicize the referendums. On Facebook, you could book a free, volunteer-driven “taxi” to the polls. Bars and restaurants offered discounts to all who had been to vote and could show the poll stamp on their voting certificate. Referendum voters could even get a half-price tattoo at one tattoo parlor in Bologna.