Nunzio is a handsome 21-year-old from Naples who dreams of being an actor. He studies at a Rome university, but he missed Lady Gaga’s inspiring call for equal rights at a free concert in the Italian capital on Saturday because he was wrestling with a few rights of his own.

Far from their local electorate, Nunzio and his mates, Carmine and Fabio, spent five hours with Rome bureaucrats to be sure they could cast an emphatic vote against Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in four national referendums on Sunday.

They were not alone. In a staggering defeat for the prime minister, more than 55% of eligible Italian voters turned out to vote — well above the 50% required for a quorum — and nearly all of them used their ballots to reject the four proposals.

Two of the referendum proposals were for the privatisation of water, one was for the reintroduction of nuclear energy and the fourth was to give Berlusconi permission to avoid the four court hearings he is facing (including charges that he paid for sex with an underage prostitute), by claiming official commitments as a “legitimate impediment”.

“The law has to be equal for everyone,” Nunzio told me as he left the voting booth in Rome. “There has to be justice for whatever you do.”

Nunzio and his friends are fed up with the prime minister’s professional and personal behaviour and embarrassed about his after-dinner sex parties now known around the world as the “bunga bunga”.

“I don’t feel Italian when I see what he is doing, I want to be a foreigner,” 22-year-old Fabio said. “We all want to be foreigners. It’s not enough for him to show up at the G8 or the G20.”

A middle-aged male voter echoed the students’ concern: “He’s made all the laws to suit himself. It is three years since he has really governed. This is a vote against Berlusconi.”

There have been a number of historic referendums in Italy: in 1946, Italians voted to throw out the monarchy in favour of a republic, in 1974 they approved divorce and they gave the green light to abortion in 1981. But seven of the 16 referendums held since 1974 collapsed without a quorum.

This vote was more than a referendum — it was a dramatic protest against the prime minister and even more of a blow as it came only two weeks after Berlusconi and his People of Freedom Party suffered devastating losses in local government elections throughout the country. His popularity is at a record low. Many people voted for the first time in their lives.

The voter turnout at this week’s referendum was even more surprising given the campaign by the prime minister and his colleagues to discourage voters.There was also questionable reporting by the media, of which the billionaire Berlusconi has a dominant share. One news bulletin gave the wrong date for the referendums and in a contentious message on the state-run broadcaster’s main news program Tg1, the weather forecaster recommended viewers take a trip to the beach because the weather was expected to be so fine.

Now there is widespread alarm within the government. The main opposition leader Pier Luigi Bersani, head of the centre-left Democratic Party, called for the resignation of the prime minister while Berlusconi himself acknowledged the will of the people could not be ignored. His powerful coalition partner the Northern League is understandably nervous.

While jubilant opponents of the 74-year-old leader partied in the streets, the newspaper owned by the Berlusconi family, Il Giornale, played down the result, but the government immediately shifted gears and pledged tax reform to fight evasion and offer much-needed stimulus to a sluggish economy.

But the enduring image this week is of a prime minister who ended a joint media conference on Monday with his Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu, as the votes were still being tallied with a laugh as he referred to the erotic 19th century painting behind them as the “bunga bunga” of its time.

Peter Fray

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