Italian electoral reform deal?

The BBC reports that the center-left Democrats and opposition leader Silvio Berlusconi have struck a deal on electoral system reforms. Such reforms are necessary as a result of the Constitutional Court having invalidated the current law.

I wonder if any readers have details. The BBC says little other than to quote Democrat’s leader Matteo Renzi as saying the new system “favours governability and a bi-polar system, and eliminates the blackmail power of the smallest parties”. And about the current system, the BBC says “The current electoral system has left Italy with a series of shaky coalitions.”

The latter is not a very accurate claim about the current electoral system, which, after all, gave the Democrats and their allies an absolute majority of seats in the Chamber of Deputies despite such fragmentation that they had barely over a quarter of the vote. The deeper problem is the strong bicameralism and the fact that the Senate must have regional representation. The bonus provision–that which manufactured the Chamber majority–is applied region-by-region in the Senate, to which the government is also responsible.

Moreover, currently it seems that it is not small-party blackmail that is the real problem needing fixing (even if we assume that a regionally elected, coequal Senate won’t be changed). Even in the Senate, which is indeed divided, the three biggest individual parties combine for well over 80% of the seats, and the two biggest for just under two thirds. (This refers to numbers at the election, before Silvio Berlusconi’s party split, with the splinter supporting the government after Berluscoini withdrew support from it.) Rather, Italy’s two biggest political forces are relatively polarized, and Italian voters were deeply split into three antagonistic blocs at the last election; in fact, the Democrats likewise led the Senate vote with just 27.7%, yet won over a third of the elected Senators thanks to the bonus provisions. These are hard problems for any electoral reform to fix, unless one is willing to tolerate really extreme disproportionality. But as the results of the 2013 election show, what they have is already quite disproportional!

13 thoughts on “Italian electoral reform deal?

  1. According to Reuters: “Renzi and Berlusconi favor a system based on proportional representation with a large number of small constituencies each electing four or five representatives and a winner’s bonus of 15-20 percent of seats. Parties winning below five percent of the vote would not get into parliament.” Seems like they’re going for the Greek form of bonus-adjusted PR, combined with small MMDs and a 5% threshold.


  2. The deal includes

    1) electoral reform with small district list-PR (= “Spanish system” according to Renzi )
    I suppose the 15-20% bonus is just an explicitation of a consequence of the low district magnitude because an explicit added-on bonus was ruled unconstitutional?

    2) less bicameralism and

    3) less federalism (because less expensive, they suppose)

    The deal is controversial because

    a) it’s rehabilitating Berlusconi as a negotiation partner and

    b) it’s endagering the Letta government : tensions over (a) within PD and more substantive with smaller coalition parties (as the deal is clearly the bigger against the smaller)

    Despite the (more) majoritarian electoral systems since 1994, governments do not seem te be more cohesive. Letta looks like a stereotypical shaky coalition to me (tensions within PD, split of PdL).


    • Thanks Bancki and JD. This would be a really comprehensive reform.

      By the way, Italy has never been federal, at least not according to any standard classifications that I know of, so perhaps we should say Italy’s unitary state will become more centralized?

      Any word on whether open or closed (or flexible) lists? Wasn’t closed lists also part of what the Court objected to, or would their argument permit small-M closed lists?

      Bancki, your point on the continued shakiness of the coalitions is well taken, but the problem is thus obviously not a product of an electoral system that is overly permissive to small parties, as the conventional wisdom seems to hold.


  3. With more details known, I must admit the proposed electoral system looks less Spanish now, and more like a ‘Matarellum 2.0’, slightly adjusted to meet the criticism of the Constitutional Court:

    -As the Court had problems with the possiblility of a huge gap between votes and seats in the current law (last elections: 29,6% votes -> 55% seats): the bonus can never be more than +18% (35% of votes -> 53% of seats) and if the plurality winner has less than 35% of votes, a second round will be needed.

    -The comments in the ruling on the closed lists were linked to the magnitude of the districts (M=617/26=24); this is bypassed, not bij ‘opening’ the lists, but by using smaller district magnitude (shorter closed lists).

    Italy is not traditionally called federal, but regions have entrenched legislative powers, so why not? (I also would consider Spain federal for the same reason)

    More info at


    • Bancki, so is there actually a second round provision in the bill? That would be a first (I think, at least at national level): two-round BAPR!

      That the Court recognized that district magnitude affected the balance of party vs. personal representation warms my heart!!

      On the (slightly off-topic) federalism question…

      Most comparative politics classifications admit Spain as federal, but I know of none that include Italy. And there may still be some that doubt Spain, but as far as I know there is no controversy in the classification of Italy. I do not know Italy’s law with respect to regional governance, but the core criterion for federalism is constitutionally protected sovereignty to an intermediate layer of government (as well as to the center). Maybe Italy’s subnational sovereignty is simply not sufficiently “guaranteed”. To anticipate a likely objection, let me note that I would agree that it might not always be entirely clear how much “sovereignty” is enough or what a “guarantee” is. Yet this is generally treated as a dichotomous classification (within each of which there is a continuum of decentralization), and one rarely finds very many cases on which there is lack of consensus as to which side of the dividing line they are on. As I said above, I have not run across a controversy on the classification of Italy as a case of unitary government (albeit more decentralized than many).


    • Correction: ‘Porcellum 2.0’ as Mattarellum (with 2 t’s) was the former law for the elections of 1994-1996-2001


  4. Since it’s going to be an actual specific bonus now, instead of a guaranteed share of the seats to the plurality party, I would say it’s most similar to the Greek variant of bonus-adjusted PR.


  5. “… Regardless of who is in charge in Italy, it is nearly always all mouth and no trousers, which to be fair is partly because the electoral system makes it impossible to avoid coalition governments and partly because the constitution, for fear of dictatorship, gives the prime minister little executive power…”
    – Nicholas Farrell, “Italy’s in terminal decline, and no one has the guts to stop it: Everything that’s wrong with France is worse here,” The Spectator (25 October 2014),
    Even allowing for this being published in the Speccie, whose editors will not suffer any to write or utter any thing soever concerning electoral and/or constitutional systems, that goeth against the Word once and for all delivered unto humankind by the Blessed Edmund Burke (praise be upon him), surely they can’t be suggesting that single-member plurality elections would give Italy single-party governments?


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