Italians vote to 'divorce' troubled premier
Silvio Berlusconi suffered a humiliating rebuff at the hands of the Italian electorate as up to 95pc of votes in a series of referendums were cast against his policies.
Four key pieces of government legislation were rejected.
The prime minister had urged people to boycott the polls but more than half the country voted down initiatives, ranging from the resumption of nuclear power to water privatisation.
They also voted overwhelmingly against a law that had given the prime minister immunity from attending four ongoing corruption and sex cases.
Pierluigi Bersani, the leader of the main opposition Democratic Party, called on Mr Berlusconi to resign rather than see out his term until 2013.
"This has been a referendum on the divorce between the government and the country," he said.
In a sign of exasperation with his three-year-old administration, around 57pc of eligible voters turned out for the referendums, easily surpassing, for the first time since 1995, the 50pc required to make the results binding.
Of those at the polls, between 94pc and 95pc voted against the four pieces of legislation, in what the Italian press called "a political earthquake".
Mr Berlusconi (74) acknowledged the scale of the loss and promised concessions.
"The high turnout shows a will on the part of citizens to participate in decisions about our future that cannot be ignored," he said. "The will of Italians is clear on all the subjects of this consultation. The government and parliament must now respond fully."
Last month, Mr Berlusconi's People of Freedom party lost Milan and other cities in local and mayoral elections.
The results widened fractures within his restive coalition, with his most important ally, the Northern League, criticising the prime minister for alienating voters in its heartland in northern Italy.
Roberto Calderoli, a government minister and a member of the league, said the party was sick of being "slapped around" by the electorate as a result of Mr Berlusconi's failings.
Most analysts say the referendums were as much a barometer of confidence on Mr Berlusconi's leadership as they were votes on individual issues.
Of the four, the one that most closely affects the billionaire tycoon concerns a law passed by his government last year which allows him to avoid attending court hearings by claiming "legitimate impediment", such as overseas duties or cabinet meetings.
It permitted the prime minister to stay away in April from the start of his most sensational trial in which he was accused of abuse of office and paying for sex with an underage prostitute.
Mr Berlusconi acknowledged that the vote had ended his hopes of restarting Italy's atomic energy programme.
"We will have to commit strongly to the renewable energy sector," he said.
Many Italians had objected to the proposal in the light of the Fukushima meltdown in Japan. (©Daily Telegraph, London)