Two rich Italian regions hold autonomy votes

MILAN • Voters in two regions of Italy's wealthy north voted in referendums yesterday to demand more autonomy from the state, in a ballot that could strengthen the anti-migrant Northern League ahead of national elections early next year.

Backers of the non-binding referendums in Lombardy and Veneto, whose regional capitals are Milan and Venice, insist they have little in common with the recent Catalan independence vote in Spain marked by violent clashes and protests.

Secessionist sentiment in the two wealthy northern regions is restricted to fringe groups with little following. Nonetheless, with both regions expected to vote in favour of the principle of greater autonomy, analysts see the referendums as reflecting the centrifugal pressures that resulted in Scotland's narrowly defeated independence vote, Britain's decision to leave the European Union and the Catalan crisis.

Both regions are expected to vote in favour of more autonomy, but the turnout level will have a critical bearing on the significance of the results. In Veneto, it has to pass 50 per cent for the result to be considered valid. There is no quorum in Lombardy, but low voter participation would weaken the region's hand in any subsequent negotiations with the central government.

Lombardy and Veneto are home to around a quarter of Italy's population and account for 30 per cent of its overall economic output.

With dynamic economies, and lower unemployment and welfare costs than the Italian average, both regions are large net contributors to the country's coffers .

"Our taxes should be spent here, not in Sicily," said Mr Giuseppe Colonna, an 84-year-old Venetian whose sentiments appear to be widely shared in the floating city.

Lombardy sends €54 billion (S$86 billion) more in taxes to Rome than it gets back in public spending. Veneto's net contribution is €15.5 billion.

The two regions would like to roughly halve those contributions - a concession the cash-strapped country, labouring under a mountain of debt, can ill afford. A similar autonomy vote is being debated in Liguria, the region that includes the Riviera coastline. Emilia Romagna, another wealthy industrial region, is already trying to negotiate for more devolved powers.

In a first for Italy, voting in Lombardy was conducted on computer tablets. Acquiring them raised the cost of the ballot but was expected to ensure an early result after the polls' scheduled close at 11pm. The polls were opened at 7am.

BLOOMBERG, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 23, 2017, with the headline 'Two rich Italian regions hold autonomy votes'. Print Edition | Subscribe