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Italy votes on regional powers

ROME, Italy -- Italians trickled to the polls on Sunday in a referendum on overhauling the constitution to give the regions greater autonomy and more financial power.

The referendum was the first time Italy has put a change in the constitution to the popular vote.

Voters were asked to approve or reject a law passed by the previous centre-left government giving the 20 regions more autonomy and financial muscle.

If it is approved, the central government's powers would be limited to foreign affairs, defence, public order, justice, electoral legislation, the environment and some wide-ranging responsibility on education.

According to a university study the state would have to transfer about 80 trillion lire ($36 billion) to the regions for them to fund schooling, health and security.

The centre left, now in opposition, urged people to vote in favour of the law, its legislative swan song.

But the ruling centre-right coalition, which took power in June, is divided on the issue.

Commentators expected a poor turnout and a vote in favour of the reforms.

"The turnout will be low but a large percentage will vote in favour," James Walston, professor of Italian politics at the American University in Rome, told Reuters.

Only 7.8 percent of those qualified to vote had cast their ballot by 12:00 a.m. (1000 GMT), five-and-a-half hours after polls opened, the Interior Ministry said on its Web site. The definitive result is not expected until Monday.

Berlusconi's government has said that whatever the outcome it will press ahead with plans to introduce a clearly defined federal system masterminded by Bossi.

Italy has only been a unified state since 1870 and analysts say many Italians feel stronger allegiance to a town or region than to their country.


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