Under Italian law, an 'abrogative' referendum – which asks voters if they think a particular item of legislation should be repealed – can be called by anyone, subject to judicial approval and proof of popular support. Three of the proposals in the referendum held earlier this week came from the anti-corruption party Italia dei Valori (roughly ‘the Italy with Principles’), the other from a group campaigning against water privatisation. One of IdV’s proposals was also about water privatisation; the others concerned nuclear power and the ‘legitimate impediment’ law, passed last year, which allowed government ministers to say they were too busy to appear in court, however serious the charges.

Of the 17 previous referendums on 64 proposals, only 21 passed. (The first, in 1974, asked if divorce, recently legalised, should be banned again. The electorate thought not.) Turnout is key: if less than half the electorate votes, the result doesn’t count. Supporters of the status quo often don't bother mobilising the No vote; demobilising voters works just as well. Silvio Berlusconi stayed at home this time; so did Umberto Bossi of the Lega Nord. But 54 per cent of the electorate went to the ballot box, and more than 94 per cent of them voted for every proposal. Not only did more than half the electorate vote, more than half voted in favour.

In legislative terms, this is only a minor setback for Berlusconi. Losing the ‘legitimate impediment’ defence is a blow, as he has so many court cases pending – or, as his supporters see it, so many enemies among the judiciary – but it's not fatal; there are many more delaying tactics where that came from.

Politically, however, the referendum is a problem for the prime minister. Berlusconi's patrimonial populism, appealing variously to prejudice, self-interest and personal loyalty, has been an extraordinarily powerful recipe for gaining and keeping power, but it rests on his mastery of two more basic political skills. He has always known how to stitch an alliance together and how to get an election won. In his heyday he was both the boss of a powerful political machine and the figurehead of a broad alliance, incorporating the successors to the Christian Democrat and neo-Fascist parties as well as the xenophobic populists of the Lega Nord.

That alliance has gradually flaked away; most of the post-Fascists and ex-Christian Democrats have abandoned Berlusconi and regrouped as a centre-right 'Third Pole'. The ability to win now seems to have deserted him as well. First he tried to have the referendum ruled unconstitutional; then he tried to reduce turnout by holding it separately from last month's local elections. The result was a massive defeat: Roberto Calderoli of the Lega Nord called it a sberla (‘slap in the face’) for the government.

Or rather, for Berlusconi: the Lega Nord's response is to be less deferential towards the great election-winner and to raise the price of its alliance. Other reactions are more hostile. For Pierluigi Bersani, leader of the centre-left Partito Democratico, this too was a referendum on divorce – ‘between the government and the country’ – and Berlusconi should resign immediately. The independent leftist Nichi Vendola (think Peter Tatchell meets Ken Livingstone) says that the mood of the country has changed, and Berlusconism has reached the end of the line.

But perhaps the most telling analysis came from Antonio di Pietro of IdV, the prime mover of the referendum. Di Pietro, who’s no leftist, criticised Bersani for 'politicising' the result, stressing the scale and the geographical consistency of the vote. Di Pietro argues that voters on the right as well as the left have expressed their belief in public goods remaining in public hands; in the law being equal for all; and, above all, in the referendum process, over and against the manoeuvres of political operators like Berlusconi. If so, perhaps Berlusconism really is over. The prime minister has dwindling political resources and few allies who are not personal followers – and the lawyers are closing in.