Giorgio Suppiej was badly beaten up when he campaigned for Venice to break away from its mainland borough, Mestre, in 1979. He was 18 at the time and was set upon as he attended a demonstration in support of autonomy by a gang deliberately dispatched by opponents to sabotage the vote.
“They were people sent by the most violent parties of the period,” said Suppiej, a lawyer and president of Venezia Serenissima, a cultural association. “It took me two months to recover.”
That referendum was unsuccessful, as were subsequent ones in 1989, 1994 and 2003. Venetians and their neighbours in Mestre go to the polls for a fifth time on Sunday and, while the atmosphere is nowhere near as vicious as it was 40 years ago, emotions are raw following the recent devastating flooding. With support building on both sides of the lagoon, campaigners say that on this occasion they might just achieve independence.
The floods, the worst since 1966, further exposed Venice’s fragility and unleashed long-held grievances over issues such as mass tourism, the behemoth cruise ships that chug through the historic Giudecca Canal and a corruption scandal that has embroiled the severely delayed flood barrier project, Mose.
“Venice is furious,” said Suppiej, whose experience in 1979 only made him more determined to fight for autonomy. “Our problems have got much worse – there is the lack of a physical safeguard, tourism is badly managed, speculation is unfettered, artisans have gone and – most importantly – the population is decreasing. Venice has been reduced to a cash cow and the only way to save it is through independence.”
Venice has 11 inhabited islands and was in control of its own administration until Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime combined it with the industrial Mestre in 1926. The plan worked relatively well until Venice’s population declined, Mestre’s grew and money that was intended to preserve the former got diverted into developing the latter, bringing with it shopping centres and huge hotels.
Venice’s population has fallen from about 175,000 in the post-second world war years to 55,000 today. And while almost triple the number of people live in Mestre, those campaigning there for autonomy say residents are also deserting the city as it is mainly a place that caters to budget tourists whose only aim is to see Venice.
“We are convinced that the two places immediately need two distinct administrations with two distinct mayors, as the problems are so different,” said Maria Laura Faccini, a spokesperson for Mestre Mia, a cultural association.
“Venice is beautiful, fragile and needs all the attention possible as it has some very difficult problems. But it isn’t much better on the other side – we also have citizens leaving because it’s not such a nice place to live – there are few services, shops are closing and it’s full of concrete hotel blocks.”
Luigi Brugnaro, the mayor of Venice, is vehemently against the referendum and even took legal action to try to block it, despite promising a vote in his 2015 election campaign. He has urged citizens to snub the ballot, arguing that independence would come at a huge cost and that it would take years to untangle bureaucracy.
Nicola Pellicani, a parliamentarian for the centre-left Democratic party who lives in Mestre, also opposes the referendum.
“This is the fifth time we have voted on what I think is an anachronistic theme,” he said. “To believe that big problems that have been there for years can be resolved by a small commune is an illusion. What we need is a strong administration – we have never had this.”
Authorities seem to be doing their best to ensure a low turnout. Only six posters publicise the referendum on Venice’s main island, while those who hung banners outside their homes campaigning for independence were last week ordered by police to remove them or be fined for “electoral propaganda”.
As the vote has approached, debates have grown more bitter, with insults traded and each side accusing the other of spreading fake news.
Speaking to people living iIn Canareggio, a neighbourhood in Venice’s historic centre, voters were split between saying “yes” in the ballot, and remaining undecided. “The referendum is important but it shouldn’t be a priority right now,” said Martina Cavagnis, who owns a bar in the area.
Supporters of autonomy look with envy towards Cavallino-Treporti, a peninsula in the lagoon with a population of 13,500 that split from Venice after a referendum in 1998.
“We’ve been able to invest more resources, be better organised and develop the territory better,” said Roberta Nesto, the mayor of Cavallino-Treporti. “Nobody would vote to return to being under Venice.”