Venetians shun poll on whether to break away from mainland

Venetians have shunned en masse the fifth vote in 40 years on whether to choose autonomy from the mainland city of Mestre, which would allow the city to take issues around rising seas and the negative effects of tourism into their own hands.

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As of 1800 GMT only 18.6 per cent of 206,553 potential voters had showed up at the polls, far short of the 50 per cent required for the referendum to be valid. 

Venice and Mestre became a single administration in 1926, when the population of Venice and its 11 islands was roughly six times that of nearby Mestre.

The situation, however, reversed in the following decades as new factories created jobs in Mestre, while Venetians began to abandon a city where life was made increasingly hard by mass tourism and frequent flooding.

After the devastating floods that hit the world heritage city in November, the subject of local governance became a key point for residents, increasingly worried about the problems that are putting Venice’s future at risk: giant cruise ships in the lagoon, a history of corrupt local politics and the impact of 20 million tourists a year on its fragile environment. 

The idea of giving Venice more autonomy, however, is not new. Sunday’s referendum was the fifth in 40 years. The last vote, in 2003, also failed due to a low turnout. 

Residents of Venice in favour of a “Yes” vote argued that granting them more autonomy would allow the city to focus on crucial issues, like preventing floods or controlling the huge numbers of cruise ships and tourists.

Observers expected that the “yes” front could draw some strength after the record high tide that caused hundreds of millions of euros in damages last month, sparking a new controversy over the urgent measures needed to defend Venice’s unique ecosystem. 

November’s floods – the worst in the past 50 years — damaged the iconic Byzantine basilica, swamped St Mark’s Piazza, dumped a tide of debris in narrow alleyways and poured murky brown water into shops, hotels and homes.

Venice Mayor Luigi Brugnaro, however, had invited residents to abstain from the referendum and warned that the city would have faced years in bureaucracy and lawsuits on the division of assets, if the region was divided into two separate municipalities.

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