What government for Italy? (And the challenges of bicameral parliamentarism)

Lots of talk today about either a grand coalition or, more commonly, a new election within months.

I am not so sure. With the caveat that I really do not pretend to know what the various actors want, I want to put out the following propositions:

1. The vote was a rejection of Berlusconi if it was anything. Sure, he was not the incumbent, but his alliance had won the last election with a large plurality and wound up below 30% in this one. That’s staggering.

2. It was certainly not an endorsement of Bersani, who apparently just squeaked by to get the plurality–and hence a majority of seats in the Chamber of Deputies–but whose alliance likewise is below 30%.

3. The Senate is divided, with Bersani’s alliance apparently second to Berlusconi’s, but close having a narrow plurality (see Bancki’s comment, below).

4. Notwithstanding the first point, Berlusconi came from far behind in the polls and just missed pulling off a massive upset (in more ways than one).

Given all of this, why not a Bersani-led government that would be a minority government in the Senate?

It seems as if the center-left would be reluctant to go to a new election, for fear that the very small shift of votes needed to lose its Chamber majority just might happen in a new election. The wild card in this scenario is, of course, Grillo and his 5-Star Movement. (Mario Monti’s list does not hold the balance in the Senate.) On the one hand, Grillo sees himself as the single star (pun intended) of this election, and might think he could do better in a new one. On the other hand, presumably the risk of being responsible for a Berlusconi comeback would make him hesitate to jump back into a new election campaign. Maybe he could be enticed to support a Bersani-led government on confidence and supply?

48 thoughts on “What government for Italy? (And the challenges of bicameral parliamentarism)

  1. The Senate numbers you cite refer to Italy minus special cases Trentino – Alto Adige/Südtirol (7 seats : PD+SVP 6, Berlusconi 1), Aosta Valley (1 seat : affiliation unknown) and expats (6 seats : PD 4, Monti 1, affiliation unknown 1, Berlusconi 0).

    The total is thus Bersani 123, Berlusconi 117, Grillo 54, Monti 19, affiliation unknown 2.

    (source: htp://elezioni.interno.it)


  2. The current Dutch Liberal-Labour coalition has a minority in the First Chamber (upper house) and a commanding lead in the lower house. It definitely can be done.

    I think the bigger issue is that Monti doesn’t want to sit in coalition with SEL, the far left, and that an abstention agreement would need to be reached with the Grillini in the Senate.

    I’m sure Berlusconi would love nothing more than early elections, so even setting aside ideological differences a unity coalition would be unlikely.


  3. Good call on the Dutch case! However, the second (yes, Dutch call it the “first”) chamber’s powers are weaker, correct? In particular, it can’t vote no confidence.

    Monti not wanting to sit with SEL is precisely the sort of conflict that minority governments bridge. Of course, that is not to say that they will bridge it in this case.

    I agree that Berlusconi is the one with the most to gain from a second election and that a “unity” (grand) coalition is almost surely not going to happen.


  4. I’m not 100% sure of the Dutch upper house’s powers, but I’m pretty sure it does not have a confidence vote. I think it does have at least a strong say on supply though, bc I remember that was a big concern of forming a two-party coalition during last year’s negotiations.

    In both Netherlands Dutch and Flemish Dutch, the upper house is the ‘First’ chamber and the lower house is the second. Interestingly though, in Belgian French the names are officially ‘Chamber of Deputies’ and ‘Senate.’


  5. In Afrikaans, né Cape Dutch, they stick to the conventional National Assembly (Nasionale Vergadering) and National Council of Provinces (Nasionale Raad van Provinsies).


  6. Chris: What do you mean by “Flemish Dutch”? The two chambers of the Belgian Parliament are known by the same terms in Flemish Dutch as in French.

    The Dutch First Chamber has its powers limited in (as far as I know) an unusual way: it has absolute veto power on any law proposed by the government or the Second Chamber and passed in the latter, but can neither propose laws nor amendments. By convention, the Government is only dependent on the Second Chamber, but this is not written. There is some debate on this issue, but the consensus is that motions of non-confidence issued by the First Chamber (I don’t think it’s ever been done) are non-binding.


  7. The Dutch first chamber may reject bills in their entirety, but may not amend them or initiate legislation. Therefore the government has to get their support to have supply.

    Their minority now is quite significant-30 govt against 45 opposition.


  8. I meant the Dutch of Flanders/northern Belgium, as opposed to that of Holland (Dutch Dutch?)

    I know I’ve seen the Belgian lower house referred to as the ‘Tweede Kamer’ before, but that may have been a Netherlands source or else someone who didn’t want to write out ‘Kamer can Volksvertegenwoordigers.’ It does appear the upper,house is usually the ‘Senaat’ in Dutch, and that while the members of the lower house are referred to in French as ‘deputies,’ the chamber’s name is ‘Chamber of Representatives.’


  9. Are those numbers including Senators for life? Monti himself is in that category.

    Also, on the Dutch case, I’m pretty sure the Upper Chamber had fixed four year terms. There were no new elections after the government fell last year.

    Those last elections saw the Socialists (far left) gain a seat rather than D66 because a single elector marked his ballot in blue rather than red. Their weighted voting system meant he had 489 votes (out of 166,561), but the loss of 489 ‘votes’ meant the seat swung. This is the only election I’ve heard of decided by a single ballot paper, though a city council race in Texas last year resulted in a tie and was decided by a coin toss.


  10. Apparently a grand coalition is not as out of the realm of possibility as it might seem, and several of those who backed Grillo are urging 5 Stelle to ally with Bersani.


  11. Grillo’s own statement was published in English on his blog.

    He specifically mentions lowering the voting age to 16, and the minimum age for candidacy for the Senate to 18. While its a translation is imperfect the implication is that he would like M5S not to participate in government, but he only specifically mentions Berlusconi for personal criticism, while inviting the two major parties to form their own coalition.


  12. I suppose they will consider reforming the electoral system (bringing both chambers closer to each other), but the real solution would be to make the Senate weaker, so that the government can survive with a majority in the Chamber only.

    Is there any other parliamentary bicameral system with, like in Italy, two equally powerful chambers, so that a new government must win a vote in both?

    (Belgium before 1993 was such a case, but both chambers always had similar electoral results)


  13. According to Corriere della Sera, Grillo has recently praised the “Sicilian model”, in which a PD regional government co-operates closely with M5S group in the council (and in fact adopted a number of elements of it’s reform programme, if the article is to be believed).


  14. @Bancki: the idea of symmetric bicameralism was apparently a compromise in 1948 between the left, which wanted a strong unicameral legislature, and the centre and right, which wanted a corporatist second chamber to balance a conventional popularly elected lower house (i.e., elected from social categories rather than traditional electoral constitutencies). The compromise that was found was symmetric bicameralism, but with popular election for both chambers.

    In other words, symmetric bicameralism is really hard wired into the post-war institutional set up, so when push comes to shove it would probably be quite hard to change. More likely, as suggested by one source, is a change to the electoral law-if both chambers produced similar results then coordination would presumably be easier?


  15. There are examples of governments that lack upper house majorities, but I know of no other country in which the Senate can vote no-confidence. Well, unless you count the Australian Senate’s ability to deny supply. However, precisely because the Italian Senate can expel a government, any gov’t that does form must have a de facto working Senate majority. That is, a government’s minority status there will be in name only. Compare this with Japan, where the Upper House can’t formally withdraw confidence and topple a gov’t, but it can stop every piece of legislation, including enabling legislation for budgets. It can, in essence, hide behind its absence of confidence powers and just cripple a government’s agenda without fear of dissolution. To my mind, the double-confidence provision in Italy, as well as the double-dissolution possibility in Australia are better than the inpunity in Japan because they apply a little accountability to the Upper House’s power.


  16. To be clear, by the normal definition, a “grand coalition” in Italy would need to involve both the alliances headed by Bersani and Berlisconi. Grillo’s M5S would be superfluous in that case.

    It seems that Berlusconi is the only one interested in a coalition (grand or otherwise) that includes him.

    An alliance–formal or informal–between the largest bloc (Bersani) and the third (Grillo) would not be a grand coalition.

    I understand the therm to mean a coalition involving the two parties/blocs that normally would oppose one another, formed when neither leading bloc can (or wishes to) strike a deal with either a separate party/bloc on its own side of the spectrum or with a pivotal party.


  17. Looking at the results, it appears that if Italy used a unicameral system, with single member plurality districts, no party would have won an overall majority in the chamber, or even gotten close. The popular vote was too close and the third place party polled two close to the top two.

    There also seems to be less uniform variation than usual, which I attribute to Grillo pulling from the core supporters of all the older tendencies.


  18. I wasn’t trying to imply a PD-M5* coalition would be a grand coalition, but rather that the article was suggesting that a PD-PDL coalition wasn’t impossible, and that Grilling was being urged to enter a non-grand coalition with Bersani.

    The coalition negotiations are as bizarre as the election itself. Berlusconi seems to want a grand coalition, when an election would seen like benefiting him (the left can’t get a Senate majority without Lombardy, which Silvio won comfortably).

    It’s hard to know whether Grilling would benefit from a second election. Protest parties tend to collapse in the following election (Shinui in Israel, Wilders in Holland) but having another election so soon complicated things. Syriza skyrocketed in the second 2012 election in Greece.


    • Shinui was made up of experienced politicians. Very unlike Grillo’s Five-Star Movement, or for that matter, Yesh Atid. I would also be hesitant to put either Wilders or Syriza in the same category as these other parties, though as always it depends on just what our category is.

      Of the parties just mentioned, Yesh Atid is not “radical” whereas the others probably are to one degree or another.


  19. > “Protest parties tend to collapse in the following election”

    Pauline Hanson’s One Nation 1996-2001. Certainly not made up of experienced politicians.

    The Nuclear Disarmament Party (the other NDP) only lasted one or two elections but a lot of its members migrated en bloc to the Greens.


  20. > “the double-confidence provision in Italy, as well as the double-dissolution possibility in Australia are better than the impunity in Japan because they apply a little accountability to the Upper House’s power.” (Mike @17)

    I’ve some recollection that Japan is as it is because General MacArthur stipulated a basically American-style structure (symmetrical but largely incongruent strong bicameralism) but also wanted to keep the Emperor as figurehead (albeit with fewer legal powers than almost any monarch beside Sweden’s), which necessitated a parliamentary executive with a PrM.

    (Interesting obits here http://tinyurl.com/bh9w7of and http://tinyurl.com/b5ycme2 for Beate Gordon, who as a young woman helped to get Japan’s ERA included in the draft. In 1945, she said, “there were only 65 Caucasians in the whole of the U.S. who knew Japanese”.)

    FWIW I tend to think Australia should copy Japan’s electoral terms set-up (4-year maximum for the lower House, 6-years fixed with half in rotation for the upper), but removing the upper house’s powers over budget and supply measures. Australians seem fixated on making the Senate term a whole multiple of the House’s: proposals to replace the current >3/6 are either >3/>6 [rejected by referendum in 1974, 1977 and 1984], >4/>8 [mooted], or >4/>4 [rejected in 1988]), even as various PrMs call double dissolutions that get the timing de-synchronised anyway.


  21. @Tom

    I’m deeply reluctant to hijack yet another thread into the rolling Australia/STV debate. If you’d like to post your electoral cycle idea into a relevant thread I’ll be happy to contest it.


    Article 88 [Dissolution of the Chambers]
    (1) The president may dissolve one or both chambers after having consulted their speakers.
    (2) He may not exercise this power during the last six months of his term, provided this period does not coincide partly or entirely with the last six months of the term of chambers.

    A presidential election is due in April.


  22. From what I’ve read, Napolitano would be deeply reluctant to call new elections at all, let alone start a new precedent and dissolve a single chamber. It may be that a candidate’s perceived willingness to call new elections is the deciding factor in the presidential vote.

    One possible solution that I’ve not heard may be to make Senate elections more majoritarian in each region. Perhaps a Mexican/Argentine solution could be used: the largest alliance gets 2/3 of the seats, the second alliance 1/3 of the seats, and all others no seats (or perhaps a national MMM addition on the side, like Mexico’s).


  23. My understanding is that the president cannot dissolve either chamber during the last 6 months of their term.

    I don’t think the structural problem is necessarily the electoral system, rather it is perverse incentives for parties not to form a government. A better solution would be a 28-day rule like South Africa or even the tighter and quicker greek rules. Form a government or face an automatic fresh election.

    I note that the media are having their customary hysteria about ‘divided Italy’, ‘threat to the euro’ etc etc. What they are really saying is that elections should not present serious choices to the people and we should all continue partying like The economic consequences of the peace had never been written.


  24. I was talking about Napolitano calling new legislative elections after being reelected, and that it’s possible his reelection or replacement should hinge on his willingness to call fresh elections. Perhaps I should have been clearer.


  25. @24 Tom:

    Actually, Tom, MacArthur proposed a unicameral system for Japan. It was the Japanese who insisted on bicameralism. As in most European countries, the Upper House had been for the “nobility” such as it was in Japan before the war (only really created 50 years earlier). The U.S. didn’t want any unelected offices, so the compromise was mostly symmetric, incongruent bicameralism. Because of LDP dominance and opposition disarray, Japanese bicameralism “played” as congruent from 1956 to 1989 despite the very different electoral systems. But since 1989, so party has had a bicameral majority and coalitions have controlled both chambers only about half the time. This is not the only reason that Japanese governments have been unable to govern effectively since 1989 (24 years!) but I think it’s one of the main reasons.

    Between this horrible idea and Article 9, the Japanese Constitution is the postwar gift that keeps on giving. Sorry about that, Japan. Our bad.


  26. Mike, thanks for clarifying. Not MacArthur then (except as a second choice, ie no upper house > quasi-Senate > quasi-House of Lords, with the Japanese negotiators having the opposite ranking of options), but it may have been someone else from the US high up in the occupation authority (the name Christopher seems to come to mind… does that ring any bells? I read this a long time ago), which is why the constitutional provisions about the two houses read like they were copied and pasted from a randomly selected US State constitution. (As opposed to the details of the electoral law, which are very “un-American” but which are contained in ordinary statute).

    Interesting parallels between these two postwar Constitutions, Italy and Japan, so far as bicameralism in concerned. In the third occupied Axis power, I understand there were similar divergences between those who wanted unicameralism [*] and those who wanted an elected Bundesrat, so appointment by Land govts was again the median compromise.

    [*] Putting aside the rather odd insistence of German constitutional scholars that the Federal Republic is actually unicameral and that the Bundesrat is not a “house of parliament” or “legislative chamber”, and applying the “does it quack like a duck” test…


  27. Well, when I say “MacArthur” I really mean the official stance of the GHQ. I don’t know what MacArthur’s personal view was, if he had one. I have a book of official Occupation-era documents on my desk.

    The other option discussed was to represent “functional” groups in the Upper House. The nobility, farmers, industry, etc. etc. GHQ rejected this idea and insisted on popular election if there was to be an upper house.


  28. I’m not at all sure that Italy was ever formally occupied. The Badoglio government (which succeeded Mussolini) declared war on Germany and Japan and was regarded as an Allied nation, although they had to sign a somewhat unequal treaty.


  29. @Mile-an interesting parallel with Italy then-the Italian Right wanted a corporate chamber as part of the post-war constitution, but the Left refused it-the compromise was symmetrical bicameralism


  30. @27 Chris: “…to make Senate elections more majoritarian in each region.”

    I don’t know if this would be a solution. With the 2013 results, you only get a national seat majority when you give the regional winner all seats in that region (in that case, Berlusconi wins: the 7 regions where he comes first, make up for 164 seats against 137 for Bersani – disregarding the ‘special cases’ with 14 seats)

    The bonuses did not alter very much the balance at national leve, they cancelled each other out between the regions (although Berlusconi benefited slightly more from the bonuses than Bersani): an allocation by D’Hondt(*) per region without bonuses, would have given this result:

    Bersani 105 (now 113) [+10]

    Berlusconi 102 (now 116) [+1]

    Grillo 76 (now 54)

    Monti 18 (=) [+1]

    others 0 (=) [+2]

    [+…] means seats in the 3 special cases mentioned in my first ‘seed’

    (*In the real world, the method used for allocation between non-bonus-parties is however simple quota largest remainder, if I’m not mistaken, which gives Monti some seats that are lost by D’Hondt-without-bonus)

    If regional bonuses are not the way to get a result similar to the Chamber, why not a chamber-like majority bonus for the nationally first placed; with the bonus being a fixed part (e.g. one quarter) of the contingent of seats of every region, and the other seats proportional to parties region-by-region?


  31. Mark, as I understand it a Senate-only is possible, although such an event has never taken place. That said, President Napolitano has made it clear he’d rather not call an early election – which under the current electoral system could very well end up in yet another stalemate.


  32. This shows a problem with allocating large blocks of seats on a winner-take-all (or winner-take-most) basis – you need to have one single grand prize, nationwide, as the Greeks do, if you want to achieve your desired goal of an absolute majority of seats for the plurality party/ alliance.

    If you instead allocate the seats region-by-region, and the regions are closely divided (or, more accurately, the regions supporting each party/ alliance have very similar aggregate totals of seats), you can get Bush v Gore.


  33. @39, Is the Greek system any better? Both systems provide a plurality bonus that neither makes governments more stable, as there is no guarantee that the bonus winner would have a workable majority, nor makes governments more democratic, as the plurality’s vote share is artificially increased.

    Italy needs to either strip the majority bonus or strip the Senate of the ability to grant/deny government confidence. Or both,

    Frankly, in my opinion anyway, both systems seem to say that they want to be presidential instead of parliamentary. Why not just do that. Let a million parties squabble in parliament but only force the government to require them to do anything when budget season comes along, If no laws can be passed because the people can’t agree on a workable group of politicians, no laws can be passed.


  34. @40 I tend to agree with the Fifth Republic solution, although hopefully with a better electoral system than the Fifth Republic has ever used.


  35. @41, Doesn’t the Fifth Republic currently use the Italian system, or something like it, of majority bonuses for one of its levels of government? Not that that is a knock against a “Fifth Republic Solution” nor an endorsement of that system of election. If a country wants one party to have power but wants a multiparty democracy, (semi-)presidentialism may not be such a bad idea.

    Though I will say one thing, the two round French system of elections is at least better than the British/American/Canadian/Indian/Etc. system of first past the post voting.


  36. Well, it looks like Berlusconi’s attempt to topple Letta’s government has resulted instead in a full-scale revolt among his People of Freedom: Italian news media sites are reporting today that as many as forty senators could break with Il Cavaliere and form a separate group – more than enough to keep Letta’s cabinet in office – while the ministers from Berlusconi’s party who obediently submitted their resignations a few days ago appear to be having second thoughts about the whole affair.


  37. ANSA reports today that Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta’s government has survived a vote of confidence in the Senate, after Silvio Berlusconi made a 180-degree turn and decided PdL should back the government after all.

    Evidently, Berlusconi was hoping to quell a mutiny among his People of Freedom, but the move may have come too late, leaving PdL in chaos. Meanwhile, Deputy Prime Minister & Interior Minister Angelino Alfano has formed a breakaway group from PdL.

    “They that sow the wind, shall reap the whirlwind.”


  38. What electoral system would be best for Italy? How did the old PR system worked before Italy got an MMP system that somehow turned into a parallel system with the parties making up decoy lists?

    How does one prevents parties from turning MMP into a MMM because they split their parties into two and use decoy lists?

    Would Australian style preferential voting system be applicable to Italy?


  39. Has any one ever proposed a two-round PR list system where in the first round, this is a national system, the first threshold is all parties below 2% don’t move on to the next round? The second round is a threshold of 3%.

    This would reduce the problem in some PR jurisdictions of a large number of votes totalled together are below the threshold. and gives the parties above the threshold huge seat bonuses.

    Would this work to reduce fragmentation or would it cause voters to vote for Turkeys just so that they can get pass the threshold over to the next round?

    This system could even be tried with a Mixed Member Proportionate system.

    This would be easier and less confusing than using a preferential vote system especially if the country in question had low literacy and numeracy.


  40. @45, Italy’s 1994-2005 Senate and Chamber of Deputies electoral systems were not MMP by any stretch of the imagination, with or without decoy lists (which were not an option under the single-vote Senate system), as neither system was ever intended to achieve a proportional distribution of seats.

    On the other hand, the Chamber of Deputies 1948-92 electoral was very proportional, the Senate’s somewhat less so; unfortunately, both produced highly fragmented legislatures, and short-lived, unstable coalition governments, as I wrote here a long time ago.

    Any electoral system featuring a threshold would have to include an exemption for Italy’s tiny German-language minority, which nonetheless constitutes over sixty percent of the population in Bolzano/Bozen province. They have their own political parties, and excluding those (or at least the larger ones) from Parliament on account of a nationwide threshold would be asking for trouble – as in re-opening the now-settled South Tyrol controversy with Austria.


  41. @45, I believe the current German system prevents decoy lists by not having a ceiling on house size and guaranteeing all parties proportionality. Of course, if the major parties tried something like what happened in Italy in Germany, the Bundestag would end up with thousands of members.


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