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Italians Get Ready to Vote on Referendum

Italians will hold a two-day referendum June 25 and June 26 to decide whether to confirm constitutional reforms giving more power to regional governments. The reforms, which boost powers in areas of health, education and local policing, were passed by the Italian parliament in November.

The constitutional reforms were approved by less than two thirds of the Italian parliament last November. Under the constitution in Italy, this meant a referendum had to be held before their approval.

But much has changed in the country's political scenario since the parliament approved the constitutional reforms. Now there's a new parliament in place with a new center-left majority. And, the government is no longer led by the center-right leader Silvio Berlusconi.

The reforms, which would give more powers to regional governments, were a key condition of the Northern League party of Umberto Bossi, to maintain its support of the former center-right government of Silvio Berlusconi.

The changes would also increase the powers of the prime minister while cutting down those of the president. The upper house of parliament would be transformed into a federal rather than national legislative body.

The reform also calls for a reduction in the number of lawmakers: The number of deputies would be reduced to 518 from 630 and senators to 252 from 315, even though this change would not actually take place for another decade.

After the April general elections in Italy, the new prime minister Romano Prodi said he was against the constitutional reform and urged the nation to vote no at the referendum.

While the center-left agrees on the need for some changes to the constitution, the prime minister and the other leaders of his coalition have branded the planned constitutional reform as fatal and for the country.

Francesco Rutelli of the Daisy party says it creates greater costs, conflicts between the state and the regions and between the upper and lower house. It creates duplication and costs, which will weigh on the future of the country. The only way to avoid this is to vote no.

The center-right opposition still favors the changes and is urging Italians to defend the reform they voted for in parliament.

Renato Schifani of the Forza Italia party, the biggest in the country established by Silvio Berlusconi, says the left is wrong in the costs because this reform will not cost anything to citizens. He adds that it would be absurd to stop the process of change in the country and a "yes" vote is what is needed.

Just like for the general elections, Italians are divided over the need for the changes to the constitution. Over 46 million Italians are eligible to vote, plus 2.6 million living abroad.

But this referendum could be affected by voter fatigue. Since April, Italians have cast their ballots three times: first in a general election and then in administrative elections and many say they will desert the polls this time.