Toward the Italian general election of 2013

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.

17 thoughts on “Toward the Italian general election of 2013

  1. Has abolishing government responsibility to the Senate (so that it only needs the confidence of the lower house) ever been seriously proposed in Italian politics? I have a feeling that it would improve government stability more than almost any electoral reform.

  2. I too have thought that a simple solution would be to ensure that only one house can bring down the government. It seems that Italy, as far as I can tell, is the only country in the world where both houses of parliament have exactly the same powers in all matters.

  3. Various Australian commentators argued, after the 1975 Whitlam crisis, that requiring a government to have a working majority in the upper house as well as the lower (to stay in the saddle and avoid removal) tends to negate the value of the Senate as a chamber of review. Voters who’re tired of instability and crises end up with little choice but to give one party a majority in both houses (as indeed happened in 1975) or else put up with governments collapsing regularly (Italy). That said, the PR systems used 1948-93 produced broadly similar results for Senato and Camera. I recall one chart c 1983 showing that most parties had very close to half as many Senators as Deputies and the main divergences reflected the higher voting age for the upper house, rather than the voting systems.

  4. Hi. To my knowledge, Italy is in fact the only (or at least the most ‘famous’) country in which both chambers give a vote of confidence and can withdraw it.
    During the current (still for a few days) legislature there have been different proposals on reforming that feature, the so-called ‘perfect bicameralism’. Nevertheless, parties’ selfish interests and the party system fragmentation blocked that attempt. In particular the proposal signed by the three main parties supporting the Monti’ government (Democratic Party, People of Freedom, and Union of the Centre) has been abandoned by electoral tactics and it had never been approved due to the early parliamentary dissolution.
    Finally, I also think the end of that bicameral system could increase government stability. In any case the electoral reform is a critical issue to be faced in the upcoming legislature.

  5. Hi. To my knowledge Italy is the only country (or at least the most ‘famous’) having such a system in which both chambers can give or withdraw a vote of confidence. During the ongoing (just for a few days) legislature there have been several proposals concerning the reform of the so-called ‘perfect bicameralism’. Nevertheless, due to parties’ selfish interests and to the party fragmentation that project never approved. In particular, the proposal made by the three main parties supporting the outgoing technical Monti’s government has delayed and then it did not pass for electoral tactics and due to the early parliamentary dissolution. Yes, I partly agree with the idea that the reform of the bicameralism (by differentiating the Chamber and the Senate attributions) would help in increasing government stability. Moreover, a more accountable electoral law should approved as soon as possible. The electoral reform remain the critical topic in the Italian political system.

  6. What electoral system would be the best fit for Italy? The country has strong regionalism. It’s not the electoral system that causes governments to collapse. Italy faces the challenge in that the Northern Part of Italy is so much richer than the South. A plurality/majoritarian system would increase regional polarization making Italy a more extreme version of Canada.

    The government needs the support of both chambers of parliament and that increases instability. One would think that this requirement is tempered somewhat because both chambers use the same electoral system (somewhat different), and can be dissolved at the same time.

    Doesn’t Italy use some sort of negative parliamentarianism? This requirement that the government needs the support of both chambers, can’t it be reformed towards the government needs the support or to be tolerated by a joint-sitting of parliament? Doesn’t Japan requirement the Prime Minister is supported by a joint sitting of both of it’s chambers?

    One would think it would be better if Italy abolished it’s upper house, and go toward unicamerialism, and downsize the size of the lower house as well. It’s parliament is huge (630 members) by the population size of Italy.

  7. I would have been interested to see how the ‘scorporo’ system would have worked if the list tier had been based on constituency votes, rather than a two-vote system (which allowed decoy lists turn the system into MMM). It could be possible that having smaller blocs which have to form true coalitions would be stronger than an electoral alliance with a plurality bonus. New Zealand hasn’t seen any early elections since it introduced MMP, and Germany has only seen once government actually lose confidence to the opposition, rather than intentionally losing to force an early election, since 1949 (in 1982), though the constructive vote of no confidence may also have something to do with it. This is despite the fact that only once in Germany since 1949 has a single party had an absolute majority (though that was technically two parties, the CDU and CSU), and that neither National nor Labour has come close to a majority on their own since the introduction of MMP in NZ.

    The biggest reform I could think of for Italy would be that if a PM loses confidence in only one chamber, he would be able to advise a dissolution of that chamber only for an early election (essentially, what Whitlam was trying to do with the half-Senate writ in 1975), though he would have the constitutional power to advise the President dissolve both chambers. What would happen if the new election returned the status quo, I don’t know. Either the majorities of the two chambers could cohabit, or they could come up with some kind of joint sitting rule like Australia has.

    Alternately, Italy might be better off moving to a semi-presidential system outright, with a fixed presidential term, though I can’t see that proposal gaining much traction.

  8. I think that at least part of the reason that both Germany and New Zealand have governments that are expected to last a full term is that they are both, from a certain point of view, a two-party system. By that I mean, that basically everyone knows that the governments will be lead by one of two parties CDU/CSU or the SDP in Germany, the Nationals or Labour in NZ. Small parties can and do become involved in government formation, but generally whichever party gets the most seats on election night is expected to form a government in short order.

    Alternatively, Italy just has unstable party politics. If it were up to me, I would make the Senate elected through single member districts but not have any say in government formation. Whoever can form a coalition in the chamber of deputies can lead the government for as long as that coalition is stable. The Senate would lose no other powers.

  9. The scorporo did not “turn the system into MMM”; it was designed as MMM, with only a partial compensation mechanism. This mechanism consisted of adjusting list votes based on nominal-tier performance prior to parallel allocation of list-tier seats. In the terminology of Shugart and Wattenberg, “vote linkage” rather than the “seat linkage” between tiers of MMP. Hungary‘s partially compensatory, but fundamentally majoritarian, MMM is broadly similar.

    It is true that parties could “game” the system by setting up decoy lists, but it is not the same as the practice in various elections in actual MMP jurisdictions (e.g. Lesotho, 2007).

  10. Mark, yes. It is one of the better established findings of political science that cabinet duration tends to be shorter the greater the fragmentation of the legislature.

    Actually, Italy since the mid-90s, as well as Germany and New Zealand (even post-reform), all have essentially two-bloc systems. However, in Italy, those blocs mask a very fragmented party system in which the component parties of the blocs retain separate identity–and periodically demonstrate their independence.

    Interestingly, of the countries just named, Germany really is the least two-bloc. The FDP has at times governed with either of the two major parties, the major parties have governed together, and the Left is not part of either bloc.

  11. Chris, the 2002 NZ election was called early. Normally, elections are in October or November. That one was in July. Maybe that’s not especially early, though in the context of three-year maximum terms, even a few months is notable.

    The earliness of the election was occasioned by policy disagreements with the outside supporter of the Labour-led minority government, the Greens. They had quite an uneasy partnership, and we could say that the party system at the time was short of being clearly two-bloc in nature. Labour called the election early because PM Helen Clark thought she might be able to win an outright majority. She did not, but was able to bring in a center-right support party, the United Future, and dispatch the Greens to the opposition. The UF is somewhat analogous to the German FDP in that it has supported governments led by either of the big parties, though it is a much less significant political force in its own right.

    Also, I would not agree that no party in New Zealand under MMP has come close to a majority. National currently has 59 seats out of 121. In 2008 it had 58 out of 122.

  12. “Interestingly, of the countries just named, Germany really is the least two-bloc. The FDP has at times governed with either of the two major parties, the major parties have governed together, and the Left is not part of either bloc.”

    Germany’s politics could be said to be even less two-bloc than that, particularly at the state level. Red-red coalitions (SPD-Linke) have occurred.

    After the Saarland election in 2009, the Greens held the balance of power between the CDU-FDP bloc and the Red-red bloc (the existence of this bloc as a potential government may have been helped by the fact that Oskar Lafontaine, a former SPD Minister-President and federal Chairman, was the leader of the Left). Contrary to what may have been expected, the Greens chose to support the CDU-FDP bloc, forming Germany’s first “Jamaica alliance” (black-yellow-green), though from outside cabinet rather than in the government. It collapsed early, in 2012, but it was not because of the Greens defecting, but rather because of internal fighting within the FDP.

  13. Suaprazzodi :

    I think that there is not a ‘right’ electoral system in absolute terms. However, a system that would increase accountability and government stability is needed. Not only plurality could so. Vice versa, a PR system with small-medium districts it will both take in account the need of representativeness of socio-political cleavages still relevant in the country, and push toward a more stable party and government systems.

    PS: I do not think the main problem is the parliamentary size (lower house): Germany and France have similar number of deputies and a quite similar population too.

  14. Chris:

    Yes, the introduction of the constructive vote of no confidence may support the government stability and contemporarily make more responsible the smaller parties. The problem of Italian party system is not the presence of an important number of (small) parties, but rather their ‘relevance’ and ‘blackmail’ power.

  15. Chris:

    I agree with MSS that the scorporo did not “turn the system into MMM”. However, the presence of decoy lists created not only problems of accountability and representativeness but it also generated institutional weakness. In the 2001-2006 legislature the parliament had 12 seats less than usual due to the ‘scorporo’ misunderstanding and misinterpretation. In fact in those decoy lists the biggest parties (and in particular that related to Forza Italia) included a number of candidates shorter than the number of seats they won. So those seats had could not been assigned.

  16. It would appear to me that the plurality bonus is one of the Italian system’s biggest flaws. While it at least works better than the Greek system in that it guarantees a majority (though it does not guarantee a majority in the Senate), it causes the formation of electoral alliances with no strong ties to one another.

    If Berlusconi somehow wins, I would doubt very much that alliance lasts 4 years in power. There will be probably be conflicts with Lega Nord, but almost certainly there will be conflicts when Berlusconi decides he wants the actual premiership and not just a puppet who may or may not exhibit independence.

    I would think a system which creates a smaller number of larger parties would be more stable-perhaps true MMP with a single ballot (list seats based on constituency votes), and forbidding pre election alliances to be formed (perhaps banning party mergers after electionsare called to strengthen this). I also think allowing the PM to call for a Senate-only election (for the unexpired term until the next general election) with restrictions (say, only if confidence is lost, and not within one year of the previous Senate election) would substantially help. If the PM lost the new Senate election, he could be required to resign.

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