ROME Two-time Italian premier Romano Prodi on Wednesday backed Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's flagship constitutional reform and said he would vote in favor of it in a referendum this weekend.
But Prodi criticized the 41-year-old prime minister's decision to stake the government and his political career on the vote.
Renzi has been furiously campaigning for his reform, appearing repeatedly in talk shows, online interviews and radio programs as he tries to turn around what polls indicated was a lead for the 'No' camp when a blackout period began on Nov. 18.
The Sunday referendum calls for the abolition of an elected upper house and its replacement with a chamber of regional representatives which will have much reduced powers. It also proposes taking back key decision-making powers from the regions.
Prodi is a founder of Renzi's Democratic Party (PD) and he won two elections against center-right rival Silvio Berlusconi in 1996 and 2006. Until Wednesday, he had not taken a public stand on the referendum.
"I feel it is my duty to make public my 'Yes' vote, in the hope that it will help reinforce our democratic rules," Prodi said in a statement.
Prodi's endorsement was far from resounding, however. He called Renzi's changes a "modest constitutional reform" that lacked the "necessary clarity or depth".
Renzi has held dozens of rallies across Italy in the past two months to promote the reform. If Italians reject it in the referendum, he has said he will step down after 2 1/2 years in office.
Financial markets have been jittery ahead of the vote, with government bond yields rising and equities - especially banking stocks - falling on fears that a Renzi loss will bring about a period of political instability.
(Additional reporting by Valentina Accardo, writing by Steve Scherer; editing by Ralph Boulton)