By MARIA SANMINIATELLI
The Associated Press
Sunday, June 25, 2006; 8:29 PM
ROME -- Italians voted Sunday on sweeping constitutional changes that proponents say would modernize a country crippled by bureaucracy and political instability.
Opponents of the reform, including Premier Romano Prodi, say change is necessary but criticize the reforms drawn up by the previous conservative government as a slapdash, confusing effort that would give too much power to the executive branch.
The reforms are intended to speed up approval of legislation in parliament while strengthening the premier's powers and transferring some authority away from Rome to the country's regions.
The referendum calls for a vote for or against on changes that would alter more than 50 of the 139 articles in the constitution, representing the biggest change ever to the document enacted after World War II in 1948.
"I voted for 'no' because it seems too simple for a reform that is so complicated," said Francesco Brasi, a 34-year-old bank employee who cast his ballot at a school in Rome.
Supporters called the referendum a move to modernize an antiquated constitution that limits the premier's powers more than other Western governments, reflecting Italy's fear of dictatorship after Benito Mussolini's Fascist wartime regime.
The referendum, a two-day vote that ends Monday, is also seen as a test of Prodi's popularity two months after he narrowly won elections. Former conservative Premier Silvio Berlusconi, whose government devised the reforms, has urged voters to approve the changes.
Thirty-five percent of the 43 million eligible voters had cast ballots by the time polls closed Sunday, according to the Interior Ministry. No minimum turnout is required for the reforms to be approved.
The reforms would allow the premier to dissolve parliament, a power now in the hands of the president. The premier also would have the power to appoint and fire Cabinet members, decisions that the president now must approve.
Other measures, some of which would not take effect for years, include transferring authority over health, education and security from the central government to the nation's 20 regions.
The proposals also would reduce the number of deputies in the lower house of parliament from 630 to 518, and the number of senators from 315 to 252. That change, however, would not take effect for another decade.
Associated Press writer Matthew Fiorentino in Rome contributed to this report.