Silvio Berlusconi laws face repeal after Italians ignore boycott plea

Prime minister Silvio Berlusconi suffered a humiliating defeat yesterday as Italians turned out in large numbers to vote in referendums which he had encouraged them to boycott.

The proposals to repeal Berlusconi-era legislation on nuclear power and trial immunity for government ministers were backed by opposition parties and opposed by the centre-right.

Interior Ministry figures put the turnout at 57 per cent, a huge change from the lacklustre participation in previous referendums, and 95 per cent of the votes counted backed the motions.

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Berlusconi, still reeling from crushing local election defeats last month, had declared that he would not cast a vote, but the unusually high turnout dashed any hope he may have had that the necessary quorum would not be reached. He said in a statement that the government would accept the "clear" result of the vote.

"The government and parliament now have the duty to fully accept the result of the four referendums," he said.

Berlusconi said the vote had probably ended any prospect of using atomic energy in Italy.

The referendums needed a turnout of more than 50 per cent to be valid and met the target easily. Supporters of the proposals had been considered far more likely than opponents to vote.

The referendums could not have come at a worse time for the 74-year-old premier, who faces a sex scandal and three fraud trials and was weakened by crushing losses in last month's local elections, including in his northern power base, Milan.

The centre-left opposition campaigned hard to get voters to the polling stations.

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