On Sunday, and yesterday Italians went to the polls to elect their new parliament after the fall of the technocratic Monti government at the end of 2012. The election result has resulted in an impasse. The centre-left coalition of Pier-Luigi Bersani has won a solid majority in the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, but the Senate is split in such a way that it is almost impossible to see a majority being formed. Italy has ‘perfect bicameralism’, that is to say a government must maintain majority support in both houses of parliament.
While many news outlets have focused on the fact that there is an impasse, they have not focused on the reason for the impasse, which is the Italian electoral system.
Italy is often used as case study by opponents of proportional representation. Yet, in recent years, Italy’s politicians have repeatedly attempted to make the system more majoritarian. This is in response to the corruption and endemic instability of the period between 1948 and 1991. It is often remarked upon that Italy’s governments commonly fell in this period, but, in reality, there was a kind of ‘stable instability’ as the same parties always formed the government. This was due to the strength of Italy’s Communist Party, which was the second largest party in the country, at its height having 2 million members and capable of winning more than a third of the vote. So the same parties were always in power because the Communists could not be allowed to govern. This bred corruption as there was no accountability – the same people would be in power no matter what. Italians have thus tended to wish for an idealised vision of a two party system, even though the reality has tended to frustrate them.
The current electoral law is the 2005 Calderoli law, named after the then Interior Minister. However, Italians commonly refer to it as the porcata (s***load) or the legge porcellum (piglet law). The law is designed to provide a majority for the largest coalition of parties. It does this by creating a series of different thresholds for coalitions and parties.
In the Chamber, a political party running alone must pass a threshold of 4%, but if it runs in a coalition then it has a threshold of 2%. The best performing party in a coalition that receives less than 2% will also receive representation. A coalition must win 10% of the vote to be recognised as one. The best performing coalition automatically receives a ‘majority bonus’ until they receive 54% of the seats. So in this case, on current preliminary results, the centre-left coalition received 29.54% of the vote. They will receive 340 of 630 seats, a solid majority, despite not receiving even a third of the votes, and despite losing, in all, 8% of the vote, it has gained significant numbers of seats.
The Senate uses a similar, but subtly different electoral system. In the Senate (which you must be 25 years old to vote for), a similar bonus applies, but this one applies at a regional level. In all but 3 of Italy’s 20 regions a majority bonus is given to the largest coalition roughly equivalent to 55% of the seats. In each region an individual party needs 8% of the vote to be elected, parties within a coalition need 3% of the vote and coalitions need 20% of the vote to be recognised as such.
The trouble is that the centre-right has a more efficient vote spread than the centre-left and holds an advantage in many of the biggest regions.
Therefore, the current preliminary results in the Senate give the centre-left 31.63% of the vote and 113 seats, the centre-right 30.72% of the vote and 116 seats.
In the initial use of the Calderoli law, in 2006, the centre-left and centre-right coalitions together received 99.49% of the vote. Yet both coalitions have substantially splintered since then. In 2008 they received 84.35%, this year, just 58.72% at the time of writing.
Two new forces have interceded. The first is Mario Monti’s ‘With Monti for Italy’, a centrist coalition. Monti’s coalition began polling strongly, but has fallen back. In the Senate, where it ran as a single party, preliminary results give it only 9.13% of the vote. This means that in many regions it has fallen below the 8% threshold, and therefore only has 18 seats.
The second is the 5 Star Movement (M5S) of Beppe Grillo, a popular comedian and blogger. The party ran on a viscerally anti-establishment platform, and won 25.55% of preliminary votes in the Chamber and 23.79% in the Senate. This means that in the Senate it holds 54 seats – giving it the balance of power. Yet Grillo’s party will not work with anyone – his view of current political elites is too poor.
Grillo’s movement of hardcore anti-establishment voices illustrates a key problem with the current Italian electoral system. Grillo’s party is a rallying call against the system, but the electoral system has effectively eliminated alternative, more moderate, anti-establishment voices. The remains of Italy’s far-left tradition were eliminated in parliament in 2008, after having refused to run in coalition with the centre-left. A similar fate has been shared in this election by the anti-corruption party Italy of Values, which used to run in coalition with the centre-left also. The centre-right Future and Freedom party of Gianfranco Fini, which previously served as an alternative to Berlusconi for the Italian centre-right, winning up to 20% support in opinion polls on its foundation has also floundered. Running in coalition with Monti it was only able to win 0.46% of the vote in the Chamber.
Such voices were in a quandary. Either they must have run in coalition with the very elite whom they opposed or they must run alone. In running alone they would risk splitting the vote, creating a mass of tactical voting for the centre-left and centre-right coalitions as elections neared. Indeed, there is evidence that this is precisely what happened to Monti’s coalition even though it proved more resilient than most other parties.
The electoral system was designed to polarise Italy around a Berlusconi-led centre-right and an anti-Berlusconi centre-left, but in doing so it created built up hostility for those for who neither was an alternative. The system also uses closed-lists which means that voters could not choose between candidates of their chosen party. It is often said in Italy that while the parties always change the politicians remain the same. One can trace many politicians’ political allegiances through the years, often discovering the name of long dead and forgotten parties. The closed-list nature of the system prevents Italians from kicking out corrupt politicians they dislike, who simply jump aboard the next big thing.
In many ways, this resembles the problems we have seen in the UK with our system. Like Italy our last election produced a hung parliament. Unlike Italy we were able to form a government. Yet, our system is also designed to produce majoritarian outcomes whatever the result. Voters here also do not get a choice between candidates within a party, with most voters living in safe seats and, even in marginal seats, voters only have a choice of one candidate a party.
Changes in the way that Italians vote have been very fast since the most recent change in the electoral law, and the political system has found itself unable to cope with the strain of it all. Changes in the way that Britons vote have been much slower, taking around 50 years, but both are problematic. The systems which both our countries use are unable to cope with these changes. The answer, in both cases, is electoral reform.