On Thursday last week, Italy’s Constitutional Court rejected a request by the far-right League Party to hold a referendum to impose Westminster style First Past the Post (FPTP) for elections to both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, saying it would have been ‘excessively manipulative’. The referendum proposal was submitted by eight regional councils, all led by a right-wing coalition, and would have changed Italy’s electoral law by abolishing the proportional element of the current mixed system, while keeping only the majoritarian, First Past the Post element.
Italy has a long history of debating and changing its electoral system to try and solve government instability and fragile coalitions. The ‘First Republic’ – the period between 1948 and 1994 – was characterised by the dominance of the Christian Democrats in government, hyper-multipartyism, corruption, centrism and ideological polarisation, with – for example – the Italian Communist Party winning a vote share of 34.4% in the Chamber of Deputies in 1976. At the height of the Cold War, no party would let them into power, reducing the options for coalitions.
The fall of the republic, as a consequence of the Tangentopoli/Mani Pulite corruption scandal, led some to think that it was the pure proportional system the country had used since the end of the Second World War that was at the root of the country’s political turmoil. Hence the move to the ‘Mattarellum’ system in 1994, where 75% of seats were chosen under FPTP and 25% through PR with a 4% threshold. Since then there have been continued attempts at introducing some FPTP element into the electoral system.
Since 2017, Italy’s ‘Rosatellum’ system has 37% of seats being elected through First Past the Post and 61% through Closed List PR with a 3% threshold (the remaining 2% of seats are for Italians resident abroad). Unlike in the Scottish Parliament, the list seats don’t compensate for the disproportionality of the First Past the Post seats.
Moving to First Past the Post would have increased the chances of the far-right League Party winning a disproportionate majority at the next election, given that the party is currently polling at around 31%-33% nationally. The League’s attempts to move to FPTP highlight how majoritarian systems are able to hand any party, however extreme, absolute power on a minority of the vote. Indeed, once a party reaches a ‘tipping point’ of electoral success, First Past the Post may allow it to quickly gain seats – something which the League appears to be well aware of and is interested in capitalising on.
Though a move to First Past the Post would have had “devastating effects on our democracy” as one Italian MP put it, Italy’s current electoral law is seen as imperfect by many.
Italy’s ‘Rosatellum’ was used to elect the current parliament in March 2018. Though it seeks to combine FPTP and PR, this system fails to gain the purported benefits of either system. Each First Past the Post constituency covers a large area as most of the seats are allocated through parties’ closed lists. Unlike other, more open proportional systems such as the Single Transferable Vote, voters cannot express a preference for which candidates from within each party list should be elected or rank them preferentially. As voters only cast a single vote – either for the party’s closed list or an individual candidate – they cannot kick out a constituency MP from a party they like, without hurting them nationally, as would be the case with AMS in Scotland.
The ruling Five Star/Democratic Party coalition recently proposed a new electoral law – the ‘Germanicum’ (as it’s a bit like Germany’s system) – which would create a more proportional outcome with a 5% threshold. In addition to attempting the referendum route, the League is also proposing a return to the ‘Mattarellum’ (the electoral law in force between 1994 and 2005) or some variation thereof.
But PR is not the cause, but rather a symptom, of Italy’s political and constitutional problems, which are much more deep-rooted and linked to a variety of historical and contextual issues, such as high regional inequality between north and south, clientelism, and corruption.
Switching to First Past the Post or returning to a primarily majoritarian way of electing its representatives will not solve these problems, it will merely restrict democracy, reducing voter choice and leaving many citizens unrepresented.