Political football: Italy’s party problems go beyond its voting system

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Posted on the 9th July 2021

In this guest post, Dylan Difford takes a look at Italy’s political system ahead of Sunday’s showdown. While PR-elected governments are the norm in the democratic world – and often more stable than First Past the Post (see Germany, New Zealand and Scotland) – Italy’s politics is unique…

Ahead of the Euro 2020 final on Sunday night, we thought we’d have a look at the country who will be trying to stop football coming home.

For much of the post-war period, Italy used a near-pure version of Party List PR, but in recent decades there have been multiple attempts to rewrite the rules to try and foster something closer to a two-party system. The first change was to the ‘Mattarellum’ in 1993 which saw 75 percent of seats elected by FPTP and 25 percent by Party List PR in a system that was neither truly compensatory, like in Scotland, nor wholly independent.

This was then replaced by the ‘Porcellum’ in 2005 – a ‘bonus’ system that guaranteed the winning electoral coalition 54 percent of seats, with those remaining allocated proportionally. This was then judged unconstitutional in 2013 and replaced by the ‘Italicum’, a two-round majority bonus system that was also judged unconstitutional and never used.

The current system, the ‘Rosatellum’, was introduced in 2017 and is a form of Parallel Voting – whereby some seats are elected using FPTP and some using List PR, with the two calculations being entirely separate.

The Rosatellum

The Italian Chamber of Deputies currently comprises 630 members, largely elected in two overlapping levels. 231 deputies are elected in single-member, FPTP constituencies and 386 are returned via 27 multi-member electoral districts that correspond to the Italian regions, but with the largest split. Unlike in Scotland and Wales, the two levels are independent of each other – the number of constituency seats you win has no bearing on the number of regional seats you are entitled to.

There are, however, two exceptions to the main system – the largely autonomous Aosta Valley returns only a single deputy and is not covered by an electoral district, and there are 12 deputies elected by Italian citizens living abroad.

Unlike in most mixed-member systems, Italians only cast one vote which is counted for both a party list and its associated constituency candidate. The main parties will all file their own lists, but many do so as part of electoral coalitions that field only one candidate for each FPTP constituency. Typically, the government is then formed by the coalition with the most deputies. While somewhat reminiscent of Scandinavian two-bloc systems, Italian electoral coalitions are more ad hoc and less solid.

The Italian Senate is elected by a near-identical method at the same time, though it only returns half as many members.

Counting the votes

In the FPTP seats, the candidate with the most votes takes the seat.

The regional seats are allocated via the Hare-Largest Remainder method of List PR using a calculation done partly at the national level and partly at the regional level. To be eligible for these seats, an electoral coalition has to win 10 percent of the national vote and an individual party needs 3 percent, though those representing linguistic minorities are exempt. For coalitions, seats are then allocated to the parties within the alliance using the same method.

The 12 seats for Italians living abroad are elected via the same method as the regional seats, in four electoral districts (Europe, North America, South America and the Rest of the World).

Who takes the seats?

The regional seats use a closed list, meaning that candidates are elected according to their position on a list predetermined by the parties. Combined with the FPTP seats, where each coalition or party only gives voters a single choice, parties hold a lot of power over who is elected to parliament.

Italy does, however, have electoral quotas for women, with parties obliged to ensure that no more than 60 percent of their candidates are from one sex and to alternate their party lists between men and women. Not adhering to these rules will result in a party losing some state funding.

Parties and government

For a long time, Italian politics was dominated by the catch-all Christian Democrats, who were in government continuously from 1946 to 1994. While sometimes governing alone without a majority, coalitions with some combination of the Socialists, Republicans, Liberals or Social Democrats were the norm. This arrangement largely existed because of both the dominance of the Christian Democrats over the other mainstream parties and a large chunk of parliament being taken up by controversial parties – the Communists, who often took at least a quarter of seats, being shunned due to Cold War pressures and their links to the Soviet Union, and the smaller neo-fascist Italian Social Movement (MSI) being excluded for more obvious reasons.

In the early-90s, corruption scandals embroiled all the establishment parties and, within just a few years, the old party system effectively disintegrated. Very few new parties have lasted long, with the Italian party system of today being one of constant splits, mergers and reformations.

Presently, Italy is being governed by a partly technocratic ‘national unity’ government, headed by the non-partisan former president of the European Central Bank Mario Draghi and comprised of nearly all the current major parties, including the anti-system populist Five Star Movement, the regionalist turned right-wing populist League, the centre-left Democratic Party and Silvio Berlusconi’s right-of-centre Forza Italia. The current government is the third formed since the last election of 2018 after the Five Star-League and Five Star-Democratic Party coalitions fell apart.

While many of the recent Italian electoral reforms were designed with the intention of creating a more stable politics, none so far have been able to assuage Italy’s reputation for political instability – suggesting that its causes go far deeper than the voting system.

This is a guest post from Dylan Difford who has recently completed an MA in Politics at the University of Essex, focussing on party and voting systems in Britain and Europe.

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