Thursday

5th May 2016

Venice votes for independence in unofficial poll

  • Secessionists see themselves as the heirs of the Most Serene Republic of Venice (Photo: Leon Barnard)

A self-organised “referendum” over the independence of one of Italy’s wealthiest regions has resulted in an overwhelming victory for the separatist camp, but authorities in Rome have largely ignored the result, amid scepticism over the regularity of the informal, non-binding poll.

Nevertheless, events in Veneto, the north-eastern region around Venice that is home to almost 5 million people, have attracted international attention, particularly from government-sponsored Russian media, keen to draw comparisons with the military-backed vote that sanctioned Moscow’s annexation of Crimea.

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Out of 3.8 million eligible voters, 2.3 million took part in Veneto’s independence “plebiscite,” organisers said Friday, after six days of voting through makeshift polling booths, via phone or the internet. The pro-secession camp was declared the winner with over 89 percent, against just under 11 percent for the unionists.

“The Venetian Republic is born again,” the leader of the ‘yes’ camp, Gianluca Busato, exclaimed at a victory rally in Treviso, in front of a crowd of a few hundred supporters.

However, before the results were announced, a programme on RAI state television had shown how easy it was for non-Veneto residents to take part in the online poll using fake names. On Sunday the La Stampa newspaper noted that voter turnout was remarkably high in a region where, according to national statistics, only 60 percent of the people use the internet.

“Voting for Veneto’s independence was like clicking ‘like’ on Facebook,” Stefano Allievi, a sociology professor from Padua, told La Stampa.

The organisers, for their part, said they weeded out almost 7,000 invalid votes from the final count, and said unspecified “international observers” monitored procedures.

By smaller margins, participants in the poll indicated that an independent Veneto should remain a member of the European Union and NATO, and should stick to the euro as its currency. Only 51.4 percent of participants approved the latter choice.

There was no official reaction from central authorities in Rome, but most commentators urged the government of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi to take seriously the signals of discontent coming from the region.

Secessionists, who are not attached to any mainstream political party, see themselves as the heirs of the Most Serene Republic of Venice, the state that ruled the lagoon city and its surroundings for about 1,000 years, until it was routed by Napoleon in 1797.

Economic argument for independence

Their main argument for independence is economic. They calculate that Veneto subsidizes Italy’s inefficient central government and its poorer southern regions to the tune of €20 billion a year. They claim that an independent state – modeled on the likes of Catalonia or Scotland – would be far better off.

“The right of self-determination that is triumphing in Veneto is the only way to free ourselves from the worst bureaucratic monster of the Western world. The blood-thirsty beast of the Italian state is hated by all of its subjects, everywhere,” Busato said.

The 44-year-old software entrepreneur was elected as one of 10 “delegates” tasked with setting independence plans into motion.

“The first objective is to keep all taxes in Veneto,” he said. “Veneto’s businesses and citizens no longer have to pay immoral and illegitimate taxes to the Italian state.”

It remains to be seen how such propositions can be put into practice.

In 1997, another independence bid from Rome ended in a farce. A commando of eight people in combat gear, armed with a WWII-era rifle and a truck disguised as a tank, highjacked a water ferry, landed on St Mark’s Square in Venice and occupied its bell tower. They were arrested by special police forces and jailed.

“The media have painted us as a rag-army, but we are not so stupid,” Andrea Arman, a legal advisor for the secessionists, told the ANSA news agency. “It will be a peaceful change,” he insisted, predicting that independence would take “from a few months to one year” to be realized.

The Northern League, the anti-immigrant party that once campaigned for the secession of the whole of northern Italy, welcomed the Veneto poll. Its leader, outgoing MEP Matteo Salvini, said a similar referendum should be held in nearby Lombardy, while separatists in Sardinia said they also wanted to follow suit.

Luca Zaia, the Northern League governor of Veneto, said he would push the regional assembly to approve plans to convene an official independence referendum. But he admitted that there were “objective problems of compatibility” with Italy’s constitution, which states that the Republic is “one and indivisible”.

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