Before and after electoral reforms: the political system in search of stability and governability. Part 1
The following is a guest post by Gianluca Passarelli, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Rome, La Sapienza
“Everything must change in order to change anything.” The very famous sentence pronounced by one of the protagonists in the novel Il Gattopardo was addressed to his interlocutor, scared by the potential changes brought by the process of Italy unification in 19th century. It seems that that phrase well represents political and institutional Italian damnation. In fact, many politicians, parties and institutional actors have all acted as Tancredi–who said the famous phrase above mentioned–in order to contain, reject, modify or just ignore the push toward a much more accountable and renewed political system.
After five elections and two electoral reforms, Italy and its so-called Second Republic, symbolically born in 1993/1994, are going to the polls without any guarantee of a politically well defined government after the vote. The 2013 Italian general election presents the same problems that in the past induced both (some) political parties and the citizens to promote a reform.
The dichotomy between (in)stability of governments v. representativeness of social cleavages and political parties still remain unsolved, as well as the lack of a defined and clear overlap between political and electoral borders. Electoral competition is not based on a set of alternative coalitions or parties, but rather the electoral offerings frequently vary. As a consequence the process of accountability between the politicians and MPs to the voters is not yet accomplished.
Of course not all time passed was in vain in terms of the changes. Certainly, thanks to the presence of a polarizing political actor, Silvio Berlusconi, the party system and electoral competition more and more follow a bipolar, and to some extent (or better attempt), two-party framework. Since 1994 there have been three alternations in power between center-right and center-left parties, but the fragmentation of the coalitions and the parties’ weakness and heterogeneity affected the stability of governments and their abilities in implementing their programs and policies. In sum, as in Joseph La Palombara’s words more than thirty years ago, Italian parties are still (not very well) surviving without governing.
So, at the threshold of a new election the Italian political system reproduces the vices of the so-called First Republic experience (1948-1992). For almost fifty years the Italian political system was affected by highly unstable governments (with a stable presence of political and governmental personnel) in part due to the party systems’ fragmentation. The last was a consequence, or better yet an amplification ‘photographed’ in sartorian terms, by a ‘pure’ proportional electoral system (Imperiali quota) which presented the possibility for small parties to be represented. Moreover, the two biggest parties were unable to govern alone, and so the Christian Democrats (the Communists could not govern due to the international divisions between USA and USSR) was prone to make oversized coalitions.
In the early nineties, international changes, judicial activity, and the citizens’ disaffection that culminated in a few referenda, contributed to the collapse of the established political system. Among other consequences, these events led to the adoption of a new electoral law: a plurality system with a proportional modification: three-quarters of the seats were allocated in single-member constituencies through a plurality method and the remaining one-quarter on party lists through a proportional method. For the House of Deputies, the proportional seats could go only to those parties that had received on a separate ballot at least 4 per cent of the national vote with the best losers in regional constituencies allowed access to the Senate.
The expectations of both voters and legislators were frustratingly contradicted. The electoral law first adopted in the general election of 1994 did not produce the outcome that commentators and politicians (and also citizens) were waiting for. Government stability was in fact still far from being a normal feature of Italian politics. Despite the eleven month average of government tenure during the First Republic, the first Berlusconi government collapsed–due to the Lega Nord (Northern League) defection–after just over half a year in office. So, a technocratic government substituted and the parliamentary deal was back again and in auge as in the recent past. The early dissolution of parliament, the change of prime ministers, that lack of parliamentary majorities, and the ensuing instability and party fragmentation remain the main characteristics of the Italian political system for the last twenty years as the political and institutional dynamics exemplifying both the 1994-2001 and 2006-2008 periods, lasting through both ëmajoritarianí and a ëproportionalí electoral law respectively.
In less than twenty years, Italy has seen eleven governments (two of which were technocratic), six different prime ministers, two oversized coalition, and two changes of parliamentary majorities during the same legislature. So, there was a sort of ‘etherogenesis of goals’, a difference between the aims and the outcomes. Or better, the aims attributed to the legislators were not so coherent with those of citizens or the political actors: the path was not that clear towards a stronger process of accountability and good functioning of parliament and government.
But what were the expectations and the promises pledged by the new Italian electoral law? We can indicate a few fields in which the new rules were committed to intervene and reform. As we know from literature on the topic, the ëeffectsí of electoral systems can be related to ëpoliticalí elements such as: the Party system, the Governability, the Duration (of governments), the level of Representativeness, Party recruitment and political personnel, accountability, etc.
The majoritarian characteristics of the first electoral reform introduced in 1993 and adopted in 1994, give the idea of a possible reduction in the number of parties present in the parliament. Similarly the 2005 second electoral reform (a ‘proportional’ one with closed lists which allocates a sizable seat majority bonus — guaranteeing 55% of seats – to the party or coalition obtaining the highest number of votes) furnished the illusionary idea of a possible ‘simplification’ of the party system. Nevertheless, the presence of a 25% of seats proportionally allocated in the first case, and the majority bonus to politically and numerically weak majority (35%-40%) and the presence of high fragmented legislative coalitions in the second ensured, at best, low governmental effectiveness. In particular the 2005 law states for the Senate that the allocation of a majority bonus region by region. As a consequence, each electoral majority in each Italian region obtains 55 per cent of seats attributed to that specific region.
Beyond the diatribe between Maurice Duverger and Giovanni Sartori about the effect of electoral systems on number of parties, we can consider the effective number of parties: during the first republic (1948-1992) the average was equal to 3.7, during the second republic’s ‘majoritarian’ electoral law, the average was 6.9, and the ENP was 5.3 for the ‘proportional’ 2006-2008 parliament. So, in opposition to expectations the number of parties was growing. Similarly the number of ‘relevant’ parties was increasing both in number and in power since the high political heterogeneity of coalitions. Of course the general dynamic of the party system was a more bipolar structure but neither the durability nor governability improved. Consequently, on one side, the role of the Parliament has been still crucial due to the relevance of parliamentary deals, while on the other side, the inability of parties in clearly leading the government conferred more power or to its leader, the prime minister. So, the short circuit between parties and parliament strongly frustrated the voters’ choices and expectations. Given party and government weakness, policies have been often incomplete, partial, or limited in their chance to solve citizensí and the countryís problems.
Especially with the 2006-2013 period and the presence of proportional closed list electoral system, the party (in central office) highly strengthened its power in recruiting party personnel. This increased the voters’ disaffection due to the diminishing ability in affecting parties’ choice and to some extent to determine social representation (especially in terms of gender, expertise and generation). The citizens frustration was in the end one of the main factors favoring abstentionism, the rise of populist parties such as the Lega Nord, the flourishing of new (and relevant) parties such as the Movimento 5 stelle (5 Star Movement), and so on.
Together with that element of continuity between the first and the second republic, it must be said that a few important changes intervened after 1993 electoral reform. Voters started to give more import ñ in terms of electoral choice ñ to candidates characteristics (see among other Itanes), and in general, they have become more and more accustomed to the bipolar competition and the expectation to have a government representative of electoral results, and not, as in the past, based on parliamentary dealing. So, the electoral proposal and political demand did change the functioning of the new electoral systems, but the political system as a whole did not follow the same path in terms of stability and consolidation around two big parties. Only in 2008 has there been a relevant reduction in the number of parties, but even that was basically due to the birth of two new parties, each resulting from the merger of two parties (Forza Italia and National Alliance created the People of Freedom led by Berlusconi; Left Democrats and Margherita were the base of the Democratic Party). Those latter parties got about 75% of votes and as many parliamentary seats. Nevertheless, that power the two parties acquired eroded especially due to the joint participation in the grand coalition supported after the Berlusconi resignation due to judicial and economic troubles.
In the light of these characteristics what we can arguably expect from the upcoming 2013 general elections? Of course we cannot forecast exactly what will happen. But we can reasonably stress expectations and post some hypotheses. Voters would expect a new political personnel, but this will only partially shall be realized. In fact, besides the Democratic party and its allied party (Sinistra e liberta) and the 5 Star Movement, no other party gives voters/members the possibility to affect candidate choice.
From a systemic point of view, we know there will be ambiguity in terms of Senate electoral outcome. In fact, even a few votes shifting in some regions (Lombardy, Veneto, and /or Campania) will determine whether or not the new prime minister would benefit from a coherent parliamentary majority in both chambers (both give a vote of confidence and can withdraw it) or if there will be a case of a sort divided government. In the latter case, the prime minister must enlarge his majority to new (different) forces vis a vis the first chamber’s one. Otherwise the new government must negotiate each vote in the Senate. As argued in fact, there is the risk of an electoral outcome giving the victory of the centre-left in the House leading to a sizable parliamentary majority, but only a relative majority of center-left in the Senate, thus precipitating a stalemate. Thus the political system will be weakening, with an election that might not be decisive.
It is true, as said, that even in Italy, as in many other European democracies, there has been a consolidating political and electoral dynamic based on alternation between two opposed coalitions. However, the presence of a new political actor, Mario Monti, is weakening this framework. Monti’s goal is strongly favored by the ambiguity, or at least the incoherence, of the electoral system, especially for the Senate.
In a few days we will see whether or not at least some voters shift will change everything in the Italian political system or if, vice versa, a big electoral change would be accompanied by no change.
About the author
Gianluca Passarelli is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Rome, La Sapienza, where he teaches Political Science and Comparative Politics. He is a researcher at the Carlo Cattaneo Institute and member of Italian National Elections Studies (Itanes). His research interests are related to presidents, parties, electoral systems, elections, and electoral, behavior. He is author of: Lega & Padania. Storie e luoghi delle camicie verdi (2012, Il Mulino, with D. Tuorto) and Presidenti della Repubblica (editor) (2010). Among his publications are articles appearing in French Politics, Political Geography, Journal of Modern Italian Studies, South European Society and Politics, Modern Italy, and Polis.