Italy 2018: Assessing the electoral-system effect

[Note: data calculations in this post are based on preliminary results. For some updated information, see the comments by Manuel below.]

The Italian election of 4 March produced an “inconclusive” result, as the media (at least English-language) are fond of saying when no party wins a majority. However, there are many aspects of the Italian result that are being reported with considerable confusion over how the electoral system works. In this post, I want to try to offer a corrective, based on the results published in La Repubblica.

These summaries will apply to the Chamber of Deputies only. The interested reader is invited to perform the equivalent calculations on the Senate and report them to the rest of us.

One common note of confusion I have seen in media accounts is insufficient clarity about the distinction between alliance (or “coalition”) and party. The design of the electoral system is fundamentally one that works on pre-election alliances, each consisting of one or more parties. Obviously, if an “alliance” consists of only one party, it is just that–a party. Rather than invent some encompassing term, I will use “alliance” when referring to the set of vote-earning entities (that would be a “more encompassing term”!) that includes pre-electoral coalitions, and “party” only when looking at the sub-alliance vote-earning entities. In the case of the Five State Movement (M5S), the “alliance” and “party” are the same thing. In the case of the other two main entities, they are different. Centrodestra (Center-right, or CDX) is a pre-electoral alliance consisting of the Lega, Forza Italia, and other parties. Centrosinistra (Center-left or CSX) is a pre-electoral alliance consisting of the Democrats (PD) and other parties.

No alliance has achieved a majority of seats. The M5S is the biggest party, while the CDX is the biggest alliance. As the table below shows, CDX leads with 263 seats, with M5S second on 222. The CSX has 118.

The breakdown is as follows, showing the three main alliances, plus a fourth one, Liberi e Uguale, which was the only other to clear the 3% threshold for individual parties or 10% for multiparty alliances:

Alliance % votes seats % seats
Centrodestra 37.0 263 42.5
M5S 32.7 222 35.9
Centrosinistra 22.8 118 19.1
Liberi e uguali 3.4 14 2.3
others 4.1 2 0.3

(There are two other seats indicated as being won by “Maie” [Associative Movement Italians Abroad] and “Usei” [South American Union Italian Emigrants]; no vote totals are given.)

The total comes to 619. Another summation from the same sources yields 620. I will not worry about the small discrepancy.

As an aside, I have seen at least two accounts of the result that have had phrasing referring to no party having won the 40% “required” to form a majority. There is no such requirement. It is true that no alliance or party attained 40% of the overall votes cast. However, the understanding that some authors (even one Italian political scientist writing on a UK blog) seem to have is that had someone cleared 40%, that alliance or party would have been assured of a majority of seats. That is incorrect. In fact, given the way the system is designed (more below), it is highly unlikely that an alliance with just over 40% could have won more than half the seats. Possible, but very unlikely (and we might say not significantly less likely had it won 39.99%). This “40%” idea floating around is just totally wrong.

The presentation of the overall result leads me to a second key point: the outcome is not terribly disproportional. However, it would be wrong to conclude from this observation that the electoral system was “proportional”. It is not designed to be such, and the disproportional elements of the design have significant consequences that I shall explain.

In terms of the Gallagher index of disproportionality (D), the result, based on alliances, yields D=5.40%. That is slightly greater than the median for my set of over 900 elections, and somewhat less than the mean of the same set (4.9 and 7.1, respectively). It is very slightly greater than the mean for PR systems (4.6; median 3.8).

Thus, based on the outcome measure of disproportionality, the Italian system looks like a moderately disproportional variant of PR. however, it is not a PR system! We do not ordinarily classify electoral systems based on their outputs, but on their rules. By that common standard, the Italian system is not PR, it is mixed-member majoritarian (MMM). It consists of two components–one that is nominal and the other than is list. The nominal component is plurality rule in single-seat districts, while the list component is nationwide PR (for alliances or parties that clear the threshold). Crucially the list seats are not allocated in compensatory fashion, but in parallel; this is the feature that makes it MMM, not MMP.

Unusually for MMM, but not disqualifying it from that category, the list-PR component is a good deal larger than the nominal (plurality) component. The nominal component is only around 35% of the total. However, the lack of compensation means that any alliance (or party) that can win pluralities in a substantial number of single-seat districts (SSDs) will be over-represented even after adding on all those list-PR seats. And such over-representation is precisely what happened.

If we look at the 398 list-PR seats and their allocation to parties (and here I do mean parties), we see a substantially more proportional output than overall. The Gallagher index is D=3.93%. This is, as reported above, right near the mean and median for pure PR systems. Just as we would expect! And most of the disproportionality comes from parties below the threshold, not from disparities among the over-threshold alliances. Around 4% of the vote was cast for alliances (or individual parties) that did not qualify for any seats. Some other votes are lost due to a provision that sub-alliance parties that get under 1% of the vote also have their votes wasted. If a party is between 1% and 3%, its votes are still credited to the alliance of which it is a part, even though such a party is barred from winning any seats in the list component.

Focusing on some of the major parties, we see that the major CDX partners were not much over-represented in the list component of the system: Lega has 17.4% of the vote and 73 seats (18.3%) for an advantage ratio (%seats/%votes) of A=1.05. Forza Italia has 14% of votes and 59 seats (14.8%) for A=1.06. The second largest alliance, the stand-alone party M5S has 32.7% of votes and 33.7% of seats for A=1.03. In the CSX, the PD is more over-represented, with 18.7% of the votes but 91 seats (22.9%), and A=1.22. I suppose this is because its partners mostly failed to qualify for seats, but the votes still get credited to the alliance (as explained above), and hence to the PD.

We see from these results that, with the partial exception of the PD, the parties are represented quite proportionally in the list-PR component of the MMM system. What gets us from D=3.93% in the list component to D=5.40% overall is precisely the fact that the nominal tier of SSDs exists and favored, as one would expect, the larger alliances. The following tables shows just how dramatic this was.

Nominal result
seats % seats % votes
Centrodestra 109 49.1 37.0
Centrosinistra 24 10.8 22.8
M5S 89 40.1 32.7
total 222 100.0

The vote percentages are the same as those shown in the first table, because there is no ticket-splitting between the two components. Each alliance presents a single candidate in each district, and the voter can vote for either a party list or an alliance candidate. Votes for a list are attributed to the candidate, and a vote for the candidate is proportionally divided among the lists in the alliance that nominated the candidate (with the previously noted caveat about parties whose national vote is in the 1-3% range).

The seats in the nominal component are distributed quite disproportionally: the largest alliance, CDX has nearly half of them, despite only 37% of the vote. The M5S is also over-represented, with about 40% of seats on just under a third of the votes. As is typical under SSDs with plurality, the third-place finisher, CSX, is significantly underrepresented, with a percentage of seats not even half its votes percentage.

Also as is typical, candidates often won their district seats on vote percentages in the low 40s or less. The mean district winner had 43.9% of the vote. For the M5S the mean was 45.4%, while for CDX it was 43.7%. As might be expected for a third force winning some seats, the CSX tended to benefit most of all from fragmented competition, with its mean winner having 39.2%. The lowest percentage for any SSD winner was 24.1% (M5S in Valle d’Aosta). Four winners had over 60%, including two from M5S and two from CSX; the maximum was 65% (CSX in Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol).

The media focus is on the “inconclusive” result, and many are blaming “PR” and the failure of any party (or alliance) to reach 40% of the votes for the lack of a “clear” verdict. However, we have seen here that the system is not proportional, even if the overall level of disproportionality is modest. If the entire system had been based on the allocation used in the list-PR component, we would be looking at CDX with 38.7% of seats, M5S with 33.7%, and CSX with 23.6%. However, given the actual MMM system, and its inherent disproportionality, the result is CDX 42.5%, M5S 35.9%, and CSX 19.1%. The non-PR aspect of the system thus has made a difference to the seat balance. The bargaining context would be difficult either way, but the two largest alliances are both boosted somewhat by features of the electoral system. Had the leader reached 40%, it would have netted only slightly more seats, surely still short of a majority, because–contrary to some claims circulating–there was no guarantee of a seat majority for reaching any given vote percentage. To form a majority of parliament, an alliance would have to win a very large percentage of the single-seat districts as well as some substantial percentage of the votes (probably a good deal higher than 40%). That the outcome is “inconclusive” says more about the divisions of the Italian electorate than it does about the supposed problems of a proportional system that Italy doesn’t actually have.


Thank you to Gianluca Passrrelli for sharing the link from which I based my calculations and for his excellent chapter in the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Electoral Systems.

Italy, 2018

It is 4 March, and in addition to El Salvador, Italy has its election today.

It is especially interesting in that it is the first election under (yet again) a new electoral system. This system is MMM, although quite different from the MMM system in place for a few elections in the 1990s and early 2000s. Details of the system were discussed in an earlier thread. I offer this one for further discussion, in particular of the results as they come in.

Summary of new Italian electoral system

If you have been unclear on what the new Italian electoral system–to be used the first time this March–really is, there is a good summary.

Broadly, it is mixed-member majoritarian (MMM, and definitely not MMP, contrary to a few claims I have seen). But with only 3/8 of the seats elected from single-seat districts, it stretches the definition at least a little bit. Anyway, the components (nominal-district and list-PR) are allocated in parallel.

There are some complicated provisions regarding the relations of votes for district candidate and lists, having to do with parties running in alliances, but there is no way to split across alliances. There is no partial compensation mechanism as there was in the MMM system (which had a balance tilted more in favor of the nominal tier) that Italy used between 1994 and 2001.

Japan 2017

Japan has a general election this Sunday. Yes, again. It looks pretty uninteresting, as we almost certainly know the result will be a big majority for the LDP and its pre-election alliance partner, Komeito. Yes, again. The main question seems to be whether that majority will be two thirds or less.

When Japan had its election in 2014, I used it as an example of different ways a cabinet can be terminated. More specifically, I used it as an example of a case where there was no reason why an early election was needed, because the government has a solid majority. That is at least as true in 2017 as it was in 2014.

Japan’s electoral system for the House of Representatives is Mixed-Member Majoritarian (MMM). Those not familiar with the term might refer to my post on the 2005 election. Now, that was an interesting election. (2009 was interesting, too, and even 2012 was, sort of.)

MMP weekend: Germany and New Zealand 2017

We are entering days of convergences. Over the next two days, the Jewish and Islamic new years and the first day of Autumn coincide. Then, on the weekend, we have the convergence of elections in the two countries that offer our best examples of mixed-member proportional (MMP) representation electoral systems: Germany and New Zealand. (Lest I be accused of hemispherism, let me hasten to note that in one of those countries, the election will be the day after the start of spring.)

In the case of Germany, which votes Sunday, there really has been no doubt for some time that the CDU/CSU alliance would place first, but it will be down from its 2013 result. There is also little doubt that the two parties that missed the 5% party-vote threshold in 2013 will clear it this time: the center-right FDP and the far-right AfD. The SPD, which briefly flirted with the lead in the polls some months after changing its leadership, looks like it may struggle to break 25% of the vote. The real question is what the coalition will be, after the election results are known.

I would expect the SPD to want a period of opposition to recollect itself after what looks sure to be another disappointing result for the party. Thus it may not be willing to renew the current CDU/CSU+SPD big coalition (what we should stop calling a grand coalition; my more direct translation of the German term is more apt). If the FDP has enough seats to combine with the CDU/CSU, we might see a return to the center-right combo that governed from 2009 to 2013, as well as in many past terms. There is just enough error in the projections from polling to allow for the possibility that this could be a viable combine. (Mouse over the numbers in the table at that link for the range of vote and seat projections for each party.)

However, the most likely result seems to me to be Jamaica! I will admit to rooting for this: CDU/CSU + FDP + Green. (The name refers to the parties’ colors.)

In New Zealand, the contest for Saturday’s election is much more uncertain. For months it seemed National, which heads the current multi-party governing arrangement, was cruising to another win. Then Labour changed its leader and surged (similar to the German pattern). By a few weeks ago, the two largest parties were running neck and neck, while the Greens stumbled badly and looked at risk of failing to clear the 5% party-vote threshold. This scenario was posing a potential difficult challenge for center-left voters: Do you vote Labour to bolster its formateur status (as the largest party, although there is no formal right of first attempt to the largest in New Zealand)? Or do you vote Green to ensure there is a viable partner for Labour other than Winston Peters and his New Zealand First (NZF) party? Given that the electoral system is MMP, you can do both: vote for Labour in your district (electorate) and vote Green on the list. However, while that might be a voter’s way of making a statement of preferred coalition, only the party vote affects the overall balance of seats in parliament. (Some exceptions to that statement, as I will get to below, but none likely relevant to the Labour-Green situation discussed here.)

In recent days, some polling suggests that National might be pulling ahead again. The result could be very close, and it could be a situation in which NZF is pivotal (although that may be less likely than it seemed some weeks ago). That is, assuming NZF makes it. The party has been tending downward and is hovering near 5%, as are the Greens . Here is where the electorate (district/nominal) vote comes in. The threshold provision for a party to participate in nationwide proportional allocation is 5% of party-list votes or one electorate. (Additional MPs elected beyond the electorate candidate are what I have termed “piggyback MPs“, not to be confused with that other MMP creature, the “shadow MP“.) The Greens do not have an electorate where they are viable, but NZF does.

Peters, the NZF leader, currently holds an electorate seat, Northland, having won it in a by-election in 2015. He is the party’s candidate again for the seat. If he retains it, his party would qualify for additional list seats, even if it fell below the 5% party-vote threshold.

The other electorate contests that matter include the one in Epsom, although it is not really a contest. The seat is safe for the one Act MP, David Seymour, who is quite certain to return. It is probably not likely that the Act party vote will be sufficient to earn the party a second seat, although I saw one projection a week or so ago that suggested it was possible. Act has been a governing partner with National since 2008.

Then there is Waiariki, one of the Maori set-aside seats. (Voters who claim Maori descent can choose to vote in their special Maori electorate or in the general electorate seat in which the reside.) Te Ururoa Flavell is fighting to hold the seat, which is the only way his party will retain a presence in parliament. That is quite a change for the party, which has been a National governing partner since 2008. In the past it has won as many as five electorate seats (in 2008) and in 2014 it had sufficient party votes to win a list seat for the first time, in addition to its win in Waiariki electorate. This time, it may end up with just one seat–or zero.

One electorate we know will not matter this time is Ohariu. United Future leader Peter Dunne resigned in August, after a 33-year career as an MP. This effectively kills the party, which has been a support partner to every government, whether led by Labour or National, since 2002. Only in 2002 did the party clear the party-vote threshold, and since 2008, Dunne has been its only member.

In an interesting twist on the Ohariu story, the Greens had initially decided not to contest the seat, in order to give the Labour candidate a chance to defeat Dunne and thereby knock a National partner out of the government-formation equation. When Dunne resigned, the Greens announced a candidate for the seat. With Dunne not running, there is no scenario in which this electorate will matter for the parliamentary balance, so there was no reason for the Greens not to have “local face” on the party (even though many of its voters will split their vote and give their electorate vote to the Labour candidate anyway). Running a candidate is thus another example of what I have called green contamination.

Two MMP elections in one weekend. Now that will be something to watch!

 

More parliamentarism in Central Asia

The Venice Commission has published an generally positive opinion on the Georgian government’s proposal for constitutional reforms. The reforms were proposed after the governing Georgian Dream party won 115 seats in the 150 member legislature in elections, slightly more than the three-quarters majority required to amend the document.

Specifically, the amendments propose repealing direct elections to the Presidency, replacing it with election by a 300-member electoral college composed of members of the national legislature and local councillors. In addition, most of the powers of the Presidency are stripped. This creates a parliamentary system, with a Prime Minister only removable through a constructive vote of no confidence.

The previously unicameral legislature will be replaced, nominally, with a bicameral legislature, comprised of a Senate and a Chamber of Deputies. However, the Senate specifically includes members elected from Abkhazia, currently under the control of a separatist government, and is only to be created after “appropriate conditions have been created throughout the territory of Georgia”. This would seem to imply that the chamber can only be created when Abkhazia returns to government control, and the Venice Commission’s report confirms that they understand its creation will be delayed.

In addition, there are changes to the electoral law. The existing mixed-member majoritarian system with a roughly even split between single-member constituencies elected using the two-round system and party-list PR with a 5% threshold will be replaced with a system of list PR only, still with a 5% threshold. While there is little elaboration, the document does specify that seats shall be allocated by the Hare quota, but instead of allocating seats by largest remainders, all remaining seats are allocated to the largest party (a method used in Greece in one of their endless electoral system changes).

The change bears some resemblance to the relatively recent amendments in Armenia. Like Georgia, a semi-presidential system with a legislature elected with a mixed-member system transitioned into a parliamentary one with a legislature elected under a list system with a bonus (though Armenia’s bonus is somewhat more elaborate, and guarantees a majority government in one form or another). While drawing broad conclusions off two examples is obviously bound to be, these two results may suggest that there is a shift away from politics centred around an all-powerful directly elected presidency, and towards more party-based politics.

A more tenuous argument along these lines could be made in relation to the electoral system. In both cases (along with Kyrgyzstan, which actually moved from single-member districts to MMM to party list), a system in which individual candidates were an important part of legislative elections (especially in the years shortly after independence) has been replaced by a system in which parties are the dominant actors. On the other hand, the pendulum has moved the other way elsewhere in the region, in Russia and the Ukraine.

The President, though endorsed by the Georgian Dream party at the 2013 election, does not appear to have been overly enthusiastic about the landslide victory. The Venice Commission did express some concerns about the power of a government with an overwhelming parliamentary majority, but that seems less likely in Georgia than in Armenia, owing to the more proportional system.

Lesotho (MMP) & Malta (STV) hold early elections on the same day

Lesotho and Malta will hold early elections this Saturday, June 3rd. Both have parliamentary systems and each one uses a different (and interesting!) type of proportional representation – each having a certain following among readers of this blog.

Lesotho uses a one-vote variant of MMP, with 80 single-seat districts in the nominal tier and 40 in the list tier. There is no threshold, and no seats are added in case of overhang, so a party can win a majority by taking more than 60 districts.

Malta uses STV, with a twist: if I understand correctly, in case one party receives an absolute majority of first-preference votes, seats are added to ensure that party has a majority, and that the majority is in proportion to its majority of the vote.

The elections were also called in different ways. Lesotho’s parliament (election not required before February 2020) was dissolved after the government lost a confidence vote in March – the prime minister could have handed over power to the coalition that ousted him, but chose instead to ask the king for an early election. Malta’s early election (originally not due until March 2018) was called by the prime minister.