Most votes allow the losers some crumbs of comfort*, ways of salvaging some pride, or glimmers of support that can be cultivated into a winning combination in the future. Italys fertility referendum in mid-June gave no such chances.

The referendums promoters wanted to loosen the restrictions on assisted procreation and medical research imposed by a 2004 law. Not only did they need majorities in favour of reform, but they also needed a quorum of 50 per cent plus one of the electorate for the vote to be valid. Supporters of the laws restrictions, most notably the Italian episcopal conference and its president, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, campaigned for abstention and they won overwhelmingly.

At 25.9 per cent of the electorate, the turnout was almost the lowest ever, despite a huge effort by the opponents of the law. This means any change to the legislation is out of the question. Beyond the substance of the law though, the 12-13 June vote has cast a long shadow on the wider political scene and on the deeper questions of relations between the Vatican and secular Italy, as well as on the influence of religion here and beyond. This is a sign of a major change in the country.

The law itself prohibits research using stem cells taken from human embryos and restricts infertile couples options for dealing with their condition. There have been some suggestions that parliament might introduce minor changes but with only nine months to run before the next general election, there is no real chance of modification. As in the past, Italians who want certain types of treatment will have to go abroad. For its part, most of the Italian scientific community is shocked by the result.

The political fallout starts with the institution of the referendum itself. Since 1997 there have been almost 20 referenda, none of which has reached the quorum. In Italy a referendum is held if half a million voters or five regional governments request it, but it can only repeal existing legislation and only certain types of law. For 20 years, from the mid 1970s to the mid 1990s, it was a highly effective instrument, which was used both to change the law and to force parliament to address hot issues such as divorce, abortion, nuclear power, changes to electoral law and the judiciary. Since then it has worked patchily and this last vote means that campaigners are going to hesitate before trying to use a referendum again. Either the referendum rules change, maybe with the quorum being lowered or abolished, or it dies as a political weapon. This time, instead of liberalising assisted procreation, the referendum strengthened the laws position and gave a resounding victory to conservatives and the Church.

There are political victims on both sides of the divide, above all coalition unity. On the centre-left, the leader of the Margherita party, Francesco Rutelli, declared loudly for abstention, perhaps currying favour with the Church but certainly dividing the coalition and his own party. He had already weakened his party and coalition by saying that the Margherita would stand independently in next years parliamentary elections and his pro-Church stance was seen by many as yet another betrayal. The leaders and parties of the centre-left were almost all in favour of reform so the defeat of the referendum was felt as a defeat for the coalition. These are open wounds, which will be difficult to heal before next years elections.

The centre-right is hardly in better shape; the leader of Alleanza Nazionale, Gianfranco Fini, not only said he would be voting (three yeses and one no) but accused the abstention camp of being anti-educational, causing a flurry of criticism from peeved members of his own party, along with threats from some of them that they would resign from key positions. Like Rutelli on the other side, no doubt some of Finis reasons were based on principle, but his political motives are more long-term than Rutellis. He is almost certainly aiming at creating a moderately conservative, secular party as a counterweight to a possible new centrist Christian Democratic party. The race to pick up Silvio Berlusconis crown is already on and Fini and the speaker of the chamber of deputies, Pier Ferdinando Casini, are frontrunners.

The other parties of the centre-right clearly campaigned for abstention and Berlusconi himself refused to be drawn on whether he would vote (he didnt but his wife did), so the long-term effects will be less damaging to the centre-right.

Finally, the change in the Churchs position in Italy is quite radical. After decades of only moderate Church presence in Italian politics, there were times in the last few weeks when the language used sounded more akin to the 1950s, and reminiscent of Pius XII, than a supposedly secular 21st century. Pope Benedict XVI exhorted the faithful to abstain, some priests who said they would vote were punished and some commentators evoked the threat of excommunication (used against Communist voters in the 1940s and 1950s). On the day after the referendum, a headline in the national daily Corriere della Sera was Ruini opens up, explicitly giving the president of the episcopal conference a role as a principal political player. At the same time as saying that it was not my victory, Cardinal Ruini has made it very clear that it was a Catholic victory and that the Church would build on this success. We can certainly expect to see an active participation in Italian politics and very possibly elsewhere as well.

Normally, low-turnout votes are political damp squibs; this one has been quite a bombshell.

*For students of English.

Below are some idiomatic words and phrases from the text above to improve your English. Please write (in English or Italian) to editorial@wantedinrome.com if you have any comments, suggestions or difficulties.

Crumbs of comfort some signs of support

Salvaging some pride saving some pride

Glimmers of support some sign of support

Out of the question not possible

Cast a long shadow has a long-term influence

The political fallout the adverse political consequence

Worked patchily worked in parts

Damp squib event with little effect

A bombshell an explosion