Rome (AFP) – Italy votes in a referendum Sunday on oil and gas drilling concessions which brings to a peak a heated debate fraught with risk for Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and fuelled by anger over a government corruption scandal.
Campaigning has pitted environmentalists against the government and big business.
Italians are to decide whether they want to repeal a law, passed in January, that says existing concessions within 12 miles (19 kilometres) of the coast should remain valid until the fields are depleted, infuriating campaigners for renewable energy.
Renzi’s centre-left Democratic Party (PD), keen to be seen as pro-business, has called on Italians not to vote in the hope the quorum will not be met — sparking a backlash from opposition parties and deepening a split within his own camp.
Under Italy’s referendum rules, the outcome of a popular vote is only valid if at least 50 percent of the registered electorate cast ballots.
Environmentalists claim platforms near the shore present risks to health and protected habitats. They insist a “Yes” to reversing the law would send a clear signal the country wants to go green and put a stop to “dirty deals” which benefit oil companies.
Polling stations will be open from 7am to 11pm (0500 GMT to 0100 GMT), with nearly 47 million Italians eligible to vote.
“It’s a hoax referendum, they say it’s about renewable energy, but actually it would mean shutting down working rigs with the loss of 11,000 jobs,” Renzi said this week, with several leading political figures slamming him as a liar and criminal.
A recent scandal in Italy that saw a top minister resign over alleged favours to French oil giant Total has spread concerns the law was changed “as a present to oil companies” such as Italian giant Eni.
– Polling booths or beaches –
Nine regions asked for, and are affected by, the referendum, from the Basilicata, to Calabria, Sardinia and the Veneto — and nearly all of them are led by the PD, fuelling a bitter internal battle and bolstering attacks on Renzi’s leadership.
“It’s unacceptable for the PM to be the head of the pro-abstention party,” said Roberto Speranza, a leading PD rebel.
Former president Giorgio Napolitano’s unexpected defence of voter abstention this week underlined what is at stake: a “Yes” victory would be a heavy blow to Renzi ahead of a constitutional reforms referendum in October, on which the 41-year-old has bet his political career.
Most observers say the result will have little effect on the cabinet’s coffers either way: concessions within the 12-mile band brought in a relatively modest 38 million euros ($43 million) in royalties in 2015, according to official data.
But a government win would reward the type of underhand dealings uncovered by the Total scandal, opponents say.
“The biggest favour to oil and gas — extending extraction indefinitely — allows them to avoid shelling out money to dismantle the platforms once the concessions have expired,” said Michele Emiliano, president of the Puglia region.
The “Yes” camp insists far fewer than 11,000 jobs are at risk, as many of the 92 platforms in question are unmanned.
They are also furious that Renzi refused to hold the referendum on the same day as local elections later this year, a decision which will cost the taxpayer 300 million euros ($338 million), according to the regions and environmentalists.
Genoa Mayor Marco Doria said it was “outrageous” they had been kept separate in the hope Italians would head to the beach instead of voting.