Italy denies constitutional reform referendum could be delayed

November 2, 2016 7:20 AM EDT

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi greets supporters during a rally in downtown Rome, Italy October 29, 2016. REUTERS/Remo Casilli


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By Gavin Jones

ROME (Reuters) - The Italian government is not considering delaying a Dec. 4 referendum on constitutional reform that could decide the future of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, the premier's office said on Wednesday.

Italian government bond yields fell earlier in the day after Interior Minister Angelino Alfano said he would personally give "great consideration" to the idea if it were to be proposed by the opposition.

Renzi's office said it "categorically denies the hypothesis of a delay in the vote".

Renzi himself on Monday dismissed as "a journalistic invention" the suggestion the referendum could be put back due to a series of earthquakes which have rocked central Italy in the last two months, leaving thousands homeless.

Some minor politicians who play no role in government had floated the proposal of putting off the vote following the latest devastating quake on Sunday.

Alfano's comments were dismissed out of hand by the opposition. Renato Brunetta, the lower house leader of the center-right Forza Italia party, called the idea of a delay "crazy and irresponsible."

Four-and-a-half weeks ahead of the ballot on his plan to reduce the role of the Senate and cut the powers of regional governments, Renzi is campaigning furiously to try to turn around opinion polls that suggest he may lose.

Alfano, who leads a small centrist party in the ruling coalition, said in a radio interview he was not speaking in his capacity as a minister, and that the government would take no initiative of its own to delay the referendum.

Nonetheless, his remarks were enough to prompt a brief rally for Italian bonds on markets, which are nervous that the referendum outcome could cause the fall of Renzi's government and a bout of political instability.

"There are many other things for the euro zone to worry about but the biggest concern is over this referendum, so that's why there's a rally," said Commerzbank strategist David Schnautz. "There is still an elephant in the room but it could become a more distant elephant."

Earlier this year, Renzi repeatedly vowed to resign and quit politics if he lost the referendum. But over the last two months he has declined to confirm the pledge, saying debate over his own future deflected attention from the merits of the reform.

All but one of 29 opinion polls published this month has put the "no" camp ahead, with a lead ranging from one to nine percentage points.

There is still some chance the referendum could be put off.

A Milan court is currently considering a case brought by a former constitutional court judge who argues that it should not be held because it lumps together too many separate questions into a request for a simple "yes" or "no" answer.

(Additional reporting by Valentina Za and Francesca Piscioneri; Editing by Tom Heneghan)



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