Rome, Italy.jpg
Photograph: Photo by Jöshua Barnett, used under CC BY

Italy's top court said Monday enough signatures had been collected to hold a referendum on a landmark constitutional reform, paving the way for the vote to be held in the second half of November, according to an analyst.

The proposed package is the most far-reaching change to Italy's constitution in the country's 60-year republican set-up. It emasculates the powers of the upper house of parliament, or Senate, and of regional bodies, to the benefit of the central government.

Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and other sponsors say it is needed to give Italy steadier governance. Critics argue that it would unduly strengthen the executive and undermine democratic checks and balances.

The Corte di Cassazione announced its decision in a statement.

The Rome-based judicial body needed to certify that a minimum of 500,000 signatures had been collected in favour of the referendum, before the government could set the timing of a vote whose outcome could have a profound impact on Italy and the rest of the eurozone.

"The Cassazione has validated the signatures collected by the Yes committee! Now citizens will have their say," Reform Minister Maria Elena Boschi, who steered the package through parliament, commented on Twitter.

Renzi's cabinet now has 60 days to recommend a referendum date to President Sergio Mattarella, who must formally announce it. It should fall on a Sunday and come within 50 to 70 days of the decision.

"We think that the two most likely dates for the constitutional referendum are either 20 or 27 of November," Fabio Fois, Italy analyst for Britain's Barclays bank, wrote in a note, echoing recent Italian media reports.

The prediction is based on expectations that Renzi would want the lower house of parliament to vote on the 2017 budget law before the referendum is held. The bill is likely to contain several tax giveaways that could help him in the referendum campaign.

The anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) and the conservative Forza Italia of former premier Silvio Berlusconi, which both oppose constitutional changes, urged the government to pick a referendum date as soon as possible.

Renzi had previously spoken of an October vote, but as his government is facing a mid-term slump in popularity, while his promise to resign if voters reject the reform seems to have galvanized the premier's opponents, he is seen as looking for more time to convince voters.

The vote is being watched with concern in European Union circles, because a government crisis triggered by a 'no' camp victory could lead to snap elections handing control of the eurozone's third-largest economy to the opposition M5S, which is eurosceptic.

Public opinion is narrowly divided on the reform, according to surveys. One carried out by the Ixe institute last week and broadcast by RAI state television said 45 per cent of Italians would vote "yes," against 36 per cent who are against and 19 per cent undecided.

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