Lombardy votes for more autonomy

95 per cent want more freedom from central government.

Over 95 per cent of voters in Italy’s northern region of Lombardy voted on Sunday for increased regional autonomy, but the turnout reached only just under 40 per cent of residents eligible to vote.

In the neighbouring region of Veneto, the vote was even more firmly in favour: the turnout was close to 60 per cent, and of these 98 per cent voted yes.

Does this mean that the two regions are clamouring for independence, risking a standoff similar to the tense situation in across the Mediterranean in Catalonia?  The short answer is no: voters in the two regions were calling for more freedom in self-government, not a break-away from Italy.

And in any case, the referendum result is not binding on central government, but is merely an eloquent indication of the voters’ mood which Rome will need to take into serious consideration when the regional presidents – Roberto Maroni in Milan and Luca Zaia in Venice, both members of the right-wing Lega Nord party – present their shopping list of amendments to local government rules.

The Northern League is particularly strong in the two regions, which together account for almost a third of the national wealth.  It has since its founding in 1989 made more regional autonomy a cornerstone of its platform, complaining that the northern economy is being leeched by “Roma ladrona” (Rome the Thief).

Regional Affairs Undersecretary Gianclaudio Bressa said Monday that Rome was prepared to hold talks with Veneto and Lombardy about greater autonomy. "The referendum results confirm that there is a strong demand for greater autonomy in these regions," Bressa said. "As we have always said, also before the vote, the government is ready to open negotiations."

Italy already has a two-tier system of regional government.  Five of the country’s twenty regions already enjoy a “special statute” – Sicily, Sardinia, Val d’Aosta, Trentino-Alto Adige and Friuli-Venezia Giulia. They have more say in areas such as health, schooling and infrastructure, and above all are permitted to keep local tax revenue for spending locally, instead of contributing to the national accounts.

Opponents of the referendum complained that it was unnecessary to spend so much money on a non-binding exercise when regional leaders already had every opportunity to present their demands to Rome. And some commentators saw the vote as a campaign move in the run-up to next year’s general election.