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Sunday November 19th, 2017 2:28PM

Power to the people: 2 Italy regions to hold autonomy votes

By The Associated Press
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VERONA, Italy (AP) — It is greater autonomy __ not independence __ that two of Italy's wealthiest regions are seeking in a pair of referendums Sunday, yet Catalonia's secessionist ambitions in nearby Spain loom large over the debate.

While the presidents of Lombardy and Veneto in northern Italy are campaigning on the economic benefits of loosening Rome's grip, identity politics also is playing a role, particularly in Veneto, heir to the once-vast Venetian Republic, where a political fringe has never given up on secession even though that's been long abandoned by the governing Northern League party.

Both Veneto President Luca Zaia and his Lombard counterpart Roberto Maroni emphasize the legal nature of the referendums, which were approved by Italy's constitutional court. In contrast, the Oct. 1 Catalan independence referendum was declared illegal and vigorously opposed by the central Spanish government in Madrid.

Still, the autonomy drive is a powerful threat to Rome's authority. Together, Veneto and Lombardy account for 30 percent of Italy's GDP and nearly one-quarter of the nation's electorate.

Both regions are run by the anti-migrant, anti-Europe Northern League, which has found allies for autonomy in other center-right parties like former Premier Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia and the populist 5-Star Movement. They hope to spread the autonomy model to other Italian regions.

In Veneto, the secessionist fringe stirs the independence waters by appealing to a common identity: a shared Veneto dialect, traditional poor man's fare like polenta, a self-image of hard-workers whose family-run businesses helped power Italy's post-war economic boom. Not least, there is also the proud history of the Venetian Republic, which for over 1,000 years dominated a vast territory comprising Veneto, parts of Lombardy and much of the eastern Mediterranean.

One Veneto separatist group, Plebescito.eu, is vowing to resume the independence campaign once Sunday's referendum has been held. Another party, Veneto Independence, was behind a failed attempt to get constitutional court approval for a Veneto referendum on independence.

Playing on an identity as Italy's underdogs, they note widespread skepticism of the autonomy referendums elsewhere in Italy and among the center-left, with critics arguing that the non-binding vote carries no legal weight, is not needed to trigger autonomy negotiations and is a costly waste of resources.

For backers of the referendums, such put-downs are part of elite, centrist decision-making in Rome that ignores the periphery — sentiments echoed elsewhere in the Catalonia referendum, in the U.S. election of Donald Trump and in Britain's vote to leave the 28-nation European Union.

"They fear it — because what we are doing on Oct. 22 is training for democracy," lawyer Alessio Morosin of the Veneto Independence party told a packed room in rural Verona province. "If afterward the 'yes' is not listened to, the second phase of the referendum toward self-determination should be automatic."

"The Catalans are working for us," he said to cheers.

The date of the referendum is laden with symbolism: October 22 is the 151st anniversary of the 1866 Veneto Plebiscite, a popular vote that united Veneto with Italy. Modern-day separatists see that vote as invalid due to low turnout.

Even Zaia's official video poses the question in stark nationalist terms: "I choose Veneto. I choose liberty."

The Veneto autonomy drive is strongly motivated by a sense of injustice at having to share tax revenues with Italy's poorer south and envy at the relative prosperity in the neighboring regions of Trentino-Alto Adige and Friuli-Venezia Giulia, which are among five regions made autonomous under Italy's 1946 constitution in recognition of their unique status.

While Trentino-Alto Adige is largely German-speaking, Friuli-Venezia Giulia was recognized for its position bordering then-Yugoslavia as a Cold War hedge.

But Veneto historian Giuseppe Gullino challenges the notion of Veneto identity, saying much of the former Venetian Republic was outside of present-day Italy, sweeping into Istria, past the Ionian islands and Crete and all the way to Cyprus.

"There is a pride in the history, which in some way was great," Gullino said. "But Venetians appreciate history, but they don't study it."

Betting on significant yes votes, Zaia and Maroni plan to launch talks with Italy's premier on 23 areas that are now the responsibility of the state, including security, migration, education and environmental policies. They also want a greater share of the tax revenues, citing Lombardy's net contributions to the central government of 54 billion euros ($63.7 billion), and Veneto's of 15.5 billion euros ($18.3 billion).

But observers say they are unlikely to be taken seriously unless they get a huge majority of votes, something like 60 or 70 percent, on a strong turnout. And any sense that Rome is dismissing the autonomy demands could play into the hands of the independence parties.

"Those who want separatism from the Italian state are in a minority," said constitutional expert Luca Antonini of Padova University's law school. "However, if the idea of autonomy is betrayed by the central government, it will feed the push for independence."

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