(Bloomberg) Voters in two regions of Italy’s wealthy north vote in referendums Sunday to demand more autonomy from the state, in a ballot which 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 which was marked by violent clashes and protests. The Italian ballots echo separatist and autonomy movements in Scotland and France among others.
"Compared to Catalonia, this is a legitimate referendum," Matteo Salvini, leader of the Northern League, which has long dropped its initial push for secession, said at a party event in Milan on October 15. "The police will be at the polling stations to vote and to help those who vote. In Barcelona, unfortunately, things ended in bloodshed. We have chosen a longer, harder path but it’s a more serious one."
Voters could choose "a political system which costs less and spends better," Salvini said, to counter budget cuts ordered by Rome which he added harm schools, university research, and small businesses.
Ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi, whose center-right Forza Italia party backs a "Yes" vote, said the ballots would take place "fully respecting national unity, the constitution and the laws," adding that victory would mean lower taxes. Berlusconi has called for similar referendums to be held in all Italian regions.
"The two referendums are about money because the regions want to have more control over tax revenues," said Wolfango Piccoli, co-president of Teneo Intelligence in London. "They’re an opportunity for the League, which controls both regions and which was behind it from the start, to score ahead of the national elections."
Nationally, opinion polls show the Democrats, the populist Five Star Movement and a possible center-right bloc are virtually tied.
Berlusconi would get a smaller boost "because he’s trying to jump on the bus at a late stage," said Piccoli, adding that a victory for the "Yes" camp would strengthen prospects for a possible center-right alliance before the national vote. The Democratic Party of Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni is divided on the referendums.
The referendums’ Northern League promoters Roberto Maroni, president of the Lombardy region, and Luca Zaia, head of the Veneto authority, argue victory would allow them to reduce the gap between tax levies sent to Rome and the value of state services they receive in return. The Lombardy region estimates the shortfall at €54 billion, which it says is the highest in Italy, with Veneto third at €15.5 billion.
Voters in Lombardy will use electronic tablets, while in Veneto -- where a 50% turnout is required for the result to be valid -- they will use paper ballots. Polling stations will be open from 7am to 11pm, with results expected overnight.
The Northern League governors are seeking a strong turnout so they’ll have more clout to press for further autonomy if they win. Still, even if the League wins the referendums, the state will not be giving up any powers soon.
"It’s hard to see any proceedings starting between now and the election, there isn’t much time left, and there isn’t much desire for them in Rome," said Piccoli.