Italy and “proportional representation”

The BBC says it again:

Mr Berlusconi’s government had pushed through an electoral reform last year which brought back full proportional representation.

Let’s get this straight. When an electoral system allows a bloc of parties to join together and take a guaranteed minimum of 55% of the seats–even if the alliance has won less than a majority of the votes–it is not proportional representation!

It is not that pre-election coalitions do not occur in clearly PR systems. They do. (Think of the UIA and Kurdish fronts in Iraq, each of which contains several component parties; there are various examples in Israel and other pure PR systems.) And it is not that majorities are never manufactured in PR systems. It does not happen often, but it happens in some cases, and the leading bloc in this case had very close to 50% of the votes anyway.

But the Italian system, v. 2006, provides very powerful incentives for large pre-election coalitions, because–especially in the lower house, where the bonus is calculated nationwide–it gives a very high premium for having the plurality of votes.

It is not a plurality system by any conventional definition. But it is just as clearly not PR.

More on Italy and PR here.

0 thoughts on “Italy and “proportional representation”

  1. You raise an interesting question, Prof. Shugart. So how do we classify this one? Are we saying any system intentionally designed to skew results is non-proportional? What about PR systems with electoral thresholds?

    I’ll agree that putting a premium on winning the plurality introduces some winner-take-all-style incentives into the mix… but does that make it not PR?

  2. Good question, Jack. Regarding PR with a threshold, such a system guarantees that all those parties that clear the threshold are represented proportionally. It simply discards the votes of parties that are deemed “too small” to be entitled to legislative representation.

    Obviously, if the threshold is very high, such a system can be quite ‘disproportional,’ by any of the conventional indices. However, it remains the case that such a stystem will give one party (or pre-election coalition presenting a common list) a majority of seats only if it has a majority of the above-threshold vote. And such a system would give two parties with very close vote shares seat shares that are also very close.

    The Italian system violates both these criteria: The largest bloc of linked lists is guaranteed a majority of seats even if it has less than a majority of the above-threshold votes, and the system guarantees that the two larges blocs will be farther apart in seats than in votes. These are both features of majoritarian electoral formulas.

    I do not have a nice snappy name for such a system. But clearly any such name would have to recognize that it is in the (small) family of majoritarian list systems, and ideally also that there is proportionality of seat allocation within a bloc to its various component parties.

  3. It’s hard to overstate the extent to which the Italian system is ‘majoritarian’. In terms of what electoral bloc will control the assembly, it is fits the description “winner-take-all” very well. It would seem to be proportional in determining the seats per party, but this is true in practice because of the powerful electoral aggregation incentives at the alliance level. Without them — as with more than two ‘effective’ electoral blocs — even the seat distribution per party could be strongly distorted (since they would be collectively augmented/diminished by the essentially national-district plurality race for majority control of the body).

  4. In terms of translating votes to seats, it might be hard to overstate the extent to which this system is majoritarian.

    But what about translating seats into policy? In other words, what does this electoral system mean for Unione’s ability to enforce party discipline? You’ve still got voters picking parties – not pre-election coalitions. There’s an incentive to factionalize once seats are filled.

    It will be interesting to watch Italian politics over the next few months. Their switch to an 80% SMD parallel system in the early 90’s was intended to foster aggregation and discipline. It failed. That voters still vote for a party within coalition might be the downfall of this attempt – from the perspective of wanting to “streamline” Italian politics. The incentive remains for parties to differentiate themselves.

  5. In terms of translating votes to seats, it might be hard to overstate the extent to which this system is majoritarian. But what about translating seats into policy?

    That’s a very good question, Jack, and one that goes beyond the ‘majoritarian system’ question, since a large range of possibilities on that front are available within any majority, manufactured or otherwise. There is one direct consequence in the sense that, were the plurality much smaller, the representation would have been a good deal narrower. It’s interesting, even within the confines of that discussion, that this case forces a conceptual separation of several aspects of majoritarian electoral systems that usually coincide — notably the vote-seat translation (which can be proportional) and the vote-majority control (which is explicitly pluralitarian).

    In other words, what does this electoral system mean for Unione’s ability to enforce party discipline? You’ve still got voters picking parties – not pre-election coalitions. There’s an incentive to factionalize once seats are filled.

    Indeed, although I’m not at all sure that the situation is the same regardless of whether the parties campaigned as a bloc. If not, that would differentiate the system even in these substantive terms from the “full PR” system that it is often reported to be.

    That voters still vote for a party within coalition might be the downfall of this attempt – from the perspective of wanting to “streamline” Italian politics. The incentive remains for parties to differentiate themselves.

    It is very possible that the outcome is not better than either previous system by many standards. But It’s not clear that maintaining the parties separate existence within the coalitions is less than desirable itself. There is a degree of “streamlining” — such as where the coalition is fully centralized itself — that may be excessive for a balanced system. It’s also important to note that this system would seem to have fewer opportunities for intraparty differentiation at the candidate level compared to either previous system. As such, the multiple units within the electoral alliances provide an important avenue for flexibility within the majority (of course, “flexibility” might otherwise be seen as indiscipline; but as I suggest above, there is probably some difference between this version of fragmentation and that between parties who share no electoral roots at all).

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  8. Dear professor Shugart, I am quite puzzled by your clear cut reject of the PR character of the new electoral law in Italy. Actually the law is proportional because (in the lower Chamber) it allows each party which either collects at least 2% of the votes (if the party joined a coalition which got at least 10% of the votes) or 4% if it did not join any coalition , to obtain parliamentary repreresention in proportion of the votes collected. The distortion of the PR character comes from the bonus which grants 54% of the seats to the winning coalition. In sum, the new (bad) Italian system could be defined a PR system with bonus.
    sincerely,
    Piero Ignazi
    Professor of Comparative Politics
    University of Bologna
    Italy

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  11. The MSNBC story quoted by FairVote shows ignorance of electoral systems. It claims the Italian system is PR, but then says it failed to guarantee a majority in the Senate. Well, of course, if it had been PR, it indeed would not guarantee a majority for parties that did not win a majority of votes.

    On the other hand, because it was not PR, but regionalized plurality-bonus, Prodi’s alliance won a majority of the elected seats. The Italian Senate has lifetime senators, too. And the right did better in the senate than in the chamber because of the regional allocation in the senate (compared to national in the lower house).

  12. “I do not have a nice snappy name for such a system.”

    That’s odd. I thought some wise author once called it “Majority-ensuring PR” and added “these systems are very rare and are likely to be found in countries with dubious democratic credentials.”

    Has it not also been called “reinforced PR?”

    Less snappily, it is a manufactured majority for the largest group, and PR for the opposition. As for the voters, they get stability whether they wanted it or not.

  13. “Reinforced PR” typically refers to the Greek system, which has several features that give the largest party a bonus (although no guarantee of a majority), in addition to low magnitude. Of course, it is a misnomer, in that it is not proportionality that is being reinforced, but rather the plurality of the largest party. I assume “reinforced PR” is just a translation of what it is called in Greek (perhaps as good as “overhang” from German).

    I suppose one could brand “majority-ensuring PR” an oxymoron.

    Take your pick: The misnomer or the oxymoron.

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