Member and neighbour States

The Italian electoral system’s dirty tricks

The Italian general elections, held on the 24th and 25th of February, led to situation both feared and comical. 

Admittedly, the centre-left coalition led by Pierluigi Bersani, got the majority at the Chamber of Representatives but in the Senate it obtained a score similar to the one of the centre-right coalition led by Silvio Berlusconi, also because of the good result of the humorist Beppe Grillo’s Movimento Cinque Stelle. In other words, there is no clear majority within the second Chamber and Italy plunges into instability once again, so that a new vote is increasingly considered.

The institutional and political deadlock which Italy must currently face is not only due to the good performances of the PdL and the M5S, but rather to its electoral system, a complex system deemed to encourage alliances and coalitions but which parcels out the political landscape a little more, in reality.

The voting is indeed based on a proportional system, with the introduction of an electoral premium for the leading party or coalition, in order to get a stable majority within the two chambers. Nonetheless, while this bonus is applied at the national level for the Chamber of Representatives, it is applied at the regional level for the Senate. This is very important, because the composition of the second Chamber and the balance of power inside it largely depends upon the demographic and political weight of some key-regions, without whom it is impossible to have the Senate under control and get a stable majority to govern. Thus, regions such as Lombardy, Campania or Sicily are key, not to say strategic regions, without which any party or coalition cannot control the Senate.

Controlling the Senate is all the more important, because contrary to the situation in France, Germany or the UK, the Italian second House holds the same powers as the lower Chamber. This is an extremely important point, partially explaining the chronic political instability Italy has experienced for years, with the Senate being able to block a legislative text or to force a government to resign, especially if it has a different political tendency. Romano Prodi, twice President of the Council (in 1996-1998 and 2006-2008) is well placed to know that!

All this makes it is easier to understand why Italy is experiencing this uncertain situation, which is due to a very complicated and hybrid voting system favouring the big parties, in particular the PdL that shaped and modified the system in 2005. Roberto Calderoli, from the Lega Nord (a populist and extremist party, several times allied to Berlusconi), even confessed that the voting system he imagined and designed for the 2006 general elections to minimise loss in front of the announced large victory of Romano Prodi, was a “porcellum” (“dirty trick”). His strategy was quite successful because the PdL managed to limit the centre-left coalition victory at the Chamber of Representatives and even became the first party in number of seats at the Senate (thanks to its performance in Lombardy, traditionally in favour of the right and where the Lega Nord has good results), forcing Prodi to lead improbable coalitions which turned against him two years later.

So, it is easier to understand the large satisfaction of Silvio Berlusconi, on the evening of the election, especially as his party, which had the majority at the Chamber and the Senate in the outgoing legislature, had not interest in modifying a voting system created “on measure” and very favourable to it. Thus, the challenge of the future government (in the hypothesis, it is led by Pierluigi Bersani) will be to tackle this electoral “porcellum”, upon the condition that it has a solid majority in both houses and the time to enact it, in order to contribute resolving the chronic instability Italy has got used to for too many years.

Gilles JOHNSON

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