“It’s obvious the current administration has failed,” said Giorgio Suppiej, a lawyer and member of the civic group Venezia Serenissima. “Would an autonomous council have made any difference? I believe it would, because the councilors would be Venetians and have to look Venetians in the face for the choices they make.”Another local grievance is the impact of the 25 million tourists who visit the city every year, many of them day trippers disgorged from cruise ships.Cruise liners docked in the harbor tower over the city of Venice | Miguel Medina/AFP via Getty ImagesThe waves of “temporary city users” creates social and economic distortions, said Jane Da Mosto, an environmental scientist who has been active in conservation in Venice for 25 years. Priced out of the market by short-term lets and frustrated by the lack of work outside the tourism sector, Venetians have been deserting their city, at a rate of about 1,000 a year.“Residents are needed to care for Venice because it is so unique and fragile,” Da Mosto saidAutonomy would allow Venice to use tax incentives to attract and retain residents and businesses. “There has been no strategy, no administrative framework, no one to listen to the ideas of people who live here,” she said.Across the water, there are many in Mestre who also favor separation. They feel that their needs have been forced to take a backseat to the complex demands of La Serenissima, sucking up most of the council’s time and resources. This will be the fifth time in 40 years that Venice has held an autonomy referendum | Filippo Monteforte/AFP via Getty ImagesThe appearance of thousands of students and volunteers — the so-called angels of the high tide who spontaneously got to work to clean-up after the floods — has fostered a sense of unity among Venetians and Maestreans, said Gianpaolo Scarante, president of the Ateneo Veneto, a cultural association.“The water that invaded our streets and squares has helped us rediscover solidarity and pride in ourselves,” he said. “We mustn’t put these feelings and emotions aside, but channel them into finding consensus. This is a precious and indispensable chance to look to the future.”With mainlanders joining fundraising and volunteering work in the cleanup, some claim that the floods have also brought landlubbers and lagoon-dwellers together. The Sunday ballot will show whether that was enough to stem the rising tide of discontent. Also On POLITICO Letter from Rome Italy’s missing feminists By Giulia Blasi Steelworks crisis threatens Italy’s unsteady coalition By Hannah Roberts The bureaucrats on the far-more populous mainland, they argue, don’t understand — and are unwilling to prioritize — the unique needs of a city built on water. Their municipality, they say, has been treated like a tourist attraction, rather than a living community.“Venice has been reduced to a bauble, like a piece of Murano glass,” Gasparinetti told attendees as a jam-packed debate on autonomy earlier this month.VenexitThe parallels with Brexit are hard to resist. The referendum campaign has been characterized by impassioned rhetoric, dire predictions and wild projections of losses and benefits. The political establishment favors continued union, while Venice’s intelligentsia and environmentalists and the local wing of the anti-establishment 5Star Movement back separation.Venice and Mestre “represent two radically different civilizations, one on the land and the other on water,” Beppe Grillo, the founder of the 5Stars, wrote on his blog.The vote is taking place in the wake of devastating floods many in the city believe could have been prevented by a more dedicated administration.After a similar cataclysm in 1966, the national government decided to build a series of flood gates capable of closing off the lagoon during unusually high tides. More than five decades and nearly €5 billion in investment later, the project — known as Mose — remains in a testing phase, incapable of holding back the water. People protest in Venice about the multitude of cruise ships that disgorge tourists onto the city’s streets | Miguel Medina/AFP via Getty Images“Mestre always takes second place,” said Debora Esposti, of MuoverSI, a campaign group in favor of separation. The city predates Venice as a settlement and once had both culture and commerce, she argues. “It was known as little Versailles,” she said. “Any city in the shadow of Venice would struggle to shine.”Separation would also free Mestre from the burden of high garbage tax to subsidize laborious rubbish collection by boat in Venice, she explained.“A pizzeria in Mestre pays €12,000 a year instead of €4,000 a few kilometers down the road because it has to subsidize the garbage created by the tourists in Venice, without seeing any of the benefits.”’Administrative chaos’On the other side of the debate, the city’s establishment politicians have closed rank against the effort. “Small is beautiful, but big is better,” said Mayor Luigi Brugnaro, who is not affiliated with a political party and is eyeing reelection in the spring.His administration sought unsuccessfully to block the referendum, and he has called for residents to abstain, hoping a low turnout will render the result invalid.Brugnaro paints a dire picture of the region’s future if the separatists win: Primary services will suffer and development plans will be stalled, including a planned football stadium on the mainland. Venice is a city under siege.Rising sea levels are licking at the city’s foundations. Colossal cruise ships eclipse the skyline like breaching towers beyond the gates. Hordes of tourists have overrun its narrow alleyways.And then there was the historically high tide earlier this month — the worst in 53 years — that submerged four-fifths of the city and caused hundreds of millions of euros in estimated damage. “Who will invest in a city that will be blocked for years by bureaucracy and legal disputes?” he said. The municipality is still in legal battles with the town of Cavallino-Treporti, which that sits on a peninsula jutting into the lagoon and that separated from Venice 20 years ago.“The water that invaded our streets and squares has helped us rediscover solidarity and pride in ourselves” — Gianpaolo Scarante, president of a cultural associationMichele Zuin, the council member in charge of the budget, predicts “administrative chaos” over the division of staff and assets in the event of a split. An internal analysis found that public transport costs, currently subsidized by tourists, would increase in Mestre from €1.50 a journey to €2.80.The cost of waste disposal would become “unbearable” for Venetians, he said.Many are hoping that voter apathy will help them win the day. “There is increasing disinterest,” said Nicola Pellicani, a Venetian Parliamentarian for the center-left Democratic Party. “This argument comes back cyclically, but the topic is anachronistic. You don’t resolve big problems by creating two smaller councils.”But he admits that, with Venetians still bailing out their homes and counting the cost of the recent deluge, anger about the perceived lack of emergency planning and the failure to deploy the Mose may drive people to the polls — and to the conclusion that it is time for a change. As the city’s beleaguered residents clear the wreckage and take stock of the destruction, many are seeing a solution in a vote this Sunday — when they will decide in a referendum whether Venice should break away from the mainland industrial center of Mestre across the lagoon.“With our own council we can be the pillar of the city, with our own mayor who shares the joy and tears of this unique place,” said Marco Gasparinetti, an autonomy campaigner with the residents’ organisation Gruppo 25 Aprile.“Venice has been reduced to a bauble, like a piece of Murano glass” — Marco Gasparinetti, autonomy campaignerIt’s not the first time Venice has tried to sever ties with Mestre. The two municipalities are connected by a causeway and have shared a single mayor and council since 1926.This weekend’s vote will mark the fifth time in 40 years that Venice has held an autonomy referendum. The last attempt, in 2003, failed when not enough voters cast ballots to meet the 50-percent turnout threshold needed to validate the results.Pro-separation campaigners like Gasparinetti are hoping that this time will be different. With growing anger over the devastating effects of climate change and over-tourism, they say this year’s effort can succeed where previous attempts have failed.