Italy “coalition of populists” back on

If Spain this week has shown parliamentary democracy working at its “constructive” best, what can we say about Italy? After it seemed earlier in the week as if an interim “non-political” government would be formed to lead the country until early elections, now the seemingly aborted coalition of “populist” parties is back on.

The president has approved Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and a cabinet consisting of ministers selected by the Lega and M5s parties.

Aside from what a topsy-turvy week it was, and from the perils of this combination of parties governing, a notable feature of the government the Prime Minister is not actually the head of either party in the coalition. (Each party head will be a Deputy PM and hold other portfolios as well.) I will have to remember to insert the word “usually” into my lectures when I say that in a parliamentary democracy, the PM is the head of one of the parties in parliament. Of course, this is not totally unprecedented in parliamentary democracies, but it is indeed not usual.

I invite the creation of a list of PMs who are not a party head in parliamentary democracies, excluding cases of caretakers or “technical” governments appointed for an interim period (like the one Italy seemed earlier in the week to be getting). Manmohan Singh in a Congress-led government of India in the recent past comes immediately to mind.

Italy 2018: Interim government, early elections

It seemed as if the Lega and Five Star Movement (M5s) were about to form a coalition, and then things turned. The mostly ceremonial President refused the coalition’s proposed finance minister, and now the coalition plan is off.

President Sergio Mattarella has tasked Carlo Cottarelli, a non-politician (till now, that is), to form a government, with elections to be held in early 2019. However, if the government is unable to get a program approved in parliament, which the BBC (second link above) says it probably can’t, elections could be this August.

Further, the BBC reports, “A source from Five Star told Reuters the party could campaign with the League in a fresh vote.”

Recall from the previous F&V discussion that the new electoral system is not proportional–although about 5/8 of the seats are indeed allocated proportionally. The other 3/8 are elected in single-seat districts, and thus it is a mixed-member majoritarian (MMM) system.

Encouraged by the majoritarian component of the system, several parties had joined together in pre-electoral alliances. However, emphatically, the Lega and M5s were not in such an alliance. Moreover, the Lega was in alliance with other parties, including Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, which were not going to be in this proposed post-election coalition. (See summary of how the electoral system affected the results.)

The breaking of a pre-election alliance–in which the parties presented joint candidacies for the single-seat districts–would always tend to be difficult, and troubling from a representative “mandates” perspective. So, from this perspective, it is arguably good that it will not happen, even if it is a bit anomalous how it came about. That is, the president–chosen by parliament, not the people–would not normally be expected to intervene in this manner in a coalition’s choice of a minister. (It is within his powers, but still unusual.)

I do not claim knowledge of the current Italian political moment, but I have to assume that Lega and M5s actually wanted an election and were quite willing to provoke a crisis. Otherwise, surely they could have found another finance minister. The one they proposed was considered too hostile to eurozone rules.

This actually could be a good outcome. If the Lega and M5s really do contest the next election in an alliance, the voters will have a clear opportunity to support a coalition of “populists”. They did not have such an opportunity in the last election, yet one almost emerged via a post-electoral realignment of the party blocs.

A key question is whether the “establishment” parties can coordinate to give voters an alternative. Another is whether the president just handed the populists a glorious opportunity to say, see, the Italian and European establishment is against us.

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.

The Italian Constitutional Referendum: Political and Institutional Consequences of a Striking “NO”

By Gianluca Passarelli

The electoral results of the constitutional referendum have led to the Prime Minister’s resignation. But let us consider what happened before.

On December 4th 2016, Italian voters expressed their vote on a referendum about constitutional reforms. This was the third referendum of its kind in Italy, with the other two held in 2001 and 2006. The two options presented to voters this time were related to the approval or rejection of the reform promoted by Matteo Renzi’s government and his centre-left parliamentary majority. However, several Democratic Party’s MPs decided not to support Renzi’s position, and used the ballot as a tool to oppose their leader due to different visions of the party, the government, policies, and the reform itself. The reform was approved earlier by an absolute majority in both houses of parliament, but the proposed changes required a two-thirds majority in parliament in order to be implemented without a referendum according to the Italian Constitution (art. 138.3). Since this threshold was not met in parliament, the referendum was called (by the Government) by collecting the required number of voter signatures, as stated by the art. 138.2, while the opponents to the reform were not able in getting the minimum number of required signatures (500.000).

The result of the referendum was both clear and decisive. Approximately 60% of voters cast a “NO” vote in opposition to the proposed reforms and only 40% voted in favor. Perhaps the most striking result was voter turnout. Nearly 70% of eligible voters cast a vote, a percentage that is similar to that reached in general elections in Italy (e.g., 75% in 2013). This figure also confirms that Italy remains a democracy with one of the highest electoral participation rates in the world. Despite this high turnout figure, one of the most notable features of the referendum is the persistent North-South divide in terms of turnout and the level of rejection of the reform. Rejection of the referendum was particularly high in southern regions, with peaks in Sicily, Sardinia, and Campania. Support for the referendum was limited and prevailed in only two regions (i.e., Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna), as well as in the province of Bolzano.

A closer investigation of the result reveals a clear centre/periphery electoral pattern, with “NO” support found in less urbanized areas, and “YES” support located in urban and metropolitan areas, though unable to surpass 50%. A positive correlation appears to exist between the support for the referendum and support for the Democratic Party in recent elections. Therefore, the “centre-periphery” cleavage is not necessarily a surprise because the Democratic Party tends to perform better in urban areas. The age of voters was also a factor with younger voters in general more likely to reject the referendum. Interestingly, nearly two-thirds of Italians who participated in the referendum from abroad supported the reform. Since only a few of the smallest parties in Italy and Renzi’s PD supported the reform, the negative result is not entirely surprising though the overwhelming turnout was.

The precise language of the December 4, 2016 referendum was as follows:

«Do you approve the constitutional bill concerning the proposals to overcome perfect bicameralism, to reduce  the number of members of the Parliament, to reduce the operating costs of said institutions, to abolish CNEL and to revise Title V of the 2nd part of the Constitution, which was approved by the Parliament and published in the Gazzetta Ufficiale n. 88, on April 15, 2016?»

What was really at the stake beyond this question? Although the reform modified the text of 46 of the 138 articles of the Italian Constitution, the “real” changes were far fewer and included minor “revisions” as a consequence of double references (here the text of the reform). In fact, the most significant of the proposed reforms were centered around two key issues: eliminating Italy’s ‘symmetric bicameralism’, and reforming the Italian senate.

The elimination of Italy’s ‘perfect’ or better symmetrical bicameralism was central to the reform. Since both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate maintain an equal share of legislative power, political impasse and obstruction are more common that progress. In fact, as established in 1947, identical texts of Italian laws must be approved by both branches of parliament. Moreover, since both houses confer the confidence to the government, each can autonomously provoke a government’s downfall by withdrawing its confidence. Such kind of bicameralism is unique among contemporary democracies and is a subject of much debate by politicians and scholars alike. It also contributes to political instability especially after 1994, as the risk of different majorities in the two branches has increased due to differences in how and who selects deputies (e.g., minimum voter age is 18 years), and senators (e.g., minimum voter age is 25 years) These different electorates have divergent electoral behaviors that are further accentuated by the regional allocation of seats for the Senate versus the national allocation for the Chamber. Therefore, the electoral geography of Italian politics plays an important role in the allocation of parliamentary seats with increased party and voter volatility.

The collapse of the pre- 1989 party system opened the door to more opinion-based electoral behaviors, together with new parties that were not linked to historical political traditions. The success of the Five Star Movement in 2013, attractive to younger voters (about 44% according to ITANES), and the Northern League since 1992-1994, that is/was especially settled in northern regions, highlight the need for parties to focus on a few regions where the number of seats allocated to the Senate was bigger, as in Lombardy, Campania, or Veneto. This was particularly true for the Senate and especially after 2005. According to those campaigning in favor of the referendum, abandoning the system in which both chambers have equal powers, not only in terms of confidence in a government but also in legislative terms, would have yielded a more efficient and effective government.

The second key reform behind the referendum concerned reducing the Senate’s legislative powers, modifying the (s)election of senators’, and changing the composition of the Senate. Abolishing the senate was never an option, and keeping it in some form permitted the government to maintain regional representation and interests. As noted above, reducing the Senate’s power however was argued to be fundamental to streamlining the Italian legislative process. That said, the Senate would still be consulted on matters and laws concerning constitutional reform, the electoral system, the ratification of international treaties, local and regional government, and the most important EU policies. This was an opposite approach to that of the constitutional reform approved in 2001.

The referendum also included changes to the selection of Italian senators and the composition of the senate. The Senate currently has 315 members, elected by direct popular vote, plus a few life senators (former Presidents of the Republic, and personalities appointed by the President). Under the proposed reform, the Senate would have been composed of 100 members – 95 elected members and 5 chosen by the President of the Republic, and appointed for a seven-year term (the life senators were abolished). Senators were to have been elected based on the share of Italy’s population among the 20 administrative regions: 74 of them would have been members of the regions’ legislative councils and 21 chosen among mayors. One of the most controversial and debated topics over the long electoral campaign was related to the fact that those 95 would have been elected by each region’s council «in conformity with the choices made by the voters’ and ‘in accordance with the votes and composition of each council». In other words, senators were not to be directly elected by voters but selected by regional councils. Since the referendum was rejected, the Senate will maintain its historical functions and composition.

In addition to the key reforms described above, it is worth noting some other amendments included in the referendum. In particular, the reform established that if a referendum was proposed by at least 800,000 citizens, the election will be considered valid if more than half of the total number of voters who took part in the most recent general election voted in it. This change would have reduced the threshold for referendums, as without the reform the threshold is equal to the absolute majority of eligible voters. Moreover, in terms of “direct democracy” tools, the reform stated that it would be mandatory for parliament to discuss a legislative initiative supported by at least 150,000 Italian voters (currently a popular bill proposal must be advanced by at least 50,000 voters but without any provision on the parliament’s duty to discuss it (art. 71.2 of the Constitution).

 Political and institutional consequences

Soon after the exit polls projected that the majority of Italians rejected the proposed referendum, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi quickly announced his resignation. Renzi’s resignation was indeed unusual but expected because he tied the referendum’s success to his own personal political success and support throughout the campaign. Consequently, Renzi’s risky political choice not only undermined his political career but also created another government crisis. In the week following Renzi’s resignation, the new government of Paolo Gentiloni, former Minister of Foreign Affairs in Renzi’s government, took the office. The new «president of the council of the ministers» (as such it is defined the Italian head of the government, art. 92 of the Constitution) has been appointed by the President of the Republic and he should receive the vote of confidence of… both chambers.

Renzi’s resignation also exposed the fissures and divides within the Italian Democratic Party.  Furthermore, regardless of when the next general elections will be held, the current electoral law poses several challenges. In fact, the new law approved in 2005 did not modified the Senate, as the constitutional reform modified the bicameralism and the Senate powers and relationship with the government, as said above. Therefore, the Senate electoral law was not changed also because the reform’s supporters thought the referendum would pass. Moreover, currently we will have separate units for bonus calculation (yes for the Chamber not for the Senate). Therefore, similar majorities cannot be assured.

Then, the constitutional reform was in somehow related to the new electoral law, which came into force in July 2016, albeit never been used. As for the previous 2005 electoral law, the so-called Italicum – as labelled by the Prime Minister Renzi – it is a bonus-adjusted proportional representation system. The majority bonus should be allocated to the most voted list, and no longer to a coalition of parties as in 2005. 340 MPs out of 618 are allocated to the most voted list, provided that it reaches 40% of the valid votes at national level (no further bonus is awarded if the list already had that quota through proportional distribution). If no list would get this many votes, a run-off is held two weeks later between the two most voted lists. No formal alliances (the so-called apparentamento) are allowed between lists running in the first round to compete to the run-off. Moreover, in spite of what happened in 2005, the Italicum foresaw only one legal threshold to enable access to the distribution of seats. Such access is allowed  solely for those lists that will reach at least the 3% of valid votes nationwide. Once the majority bonus is assigned (in this sense the system is majority assuring, whatever the result of the first round), the rest of seats are allocated with PR (Hare quota and largest remainders) to the list that has overcome the national threshold; no mechanism of repêchage has been introduced. Vice versa, an peculiar element of the 1948-1993 system has been re-introduced, given that the new electoral law allow voters to cast up to two preference votes (male/female candidates) for the open candidates (i.e. excluding the head-of-list) of their party, by writing the corresponding names on the ballot.

A first clarification (if any) should come from the Constitutional court, whose decision is scheduled for January 24 2017. The Court could likely drop the majority bonus for the Chamber of Deputies in order to make “more similar” the two electoral systems for the two Houses, albeit the Senate would still have a regional allocation of seats. Moreover, some changes could intervene in the voters’ provisions such as the preference votes. By the way, I am wondering if anybody among politicians and/or scholars is seriously convinced, and arguably convincing, that that PV gives more effective power to the voters in selecting their MPs.

The currently situation has changed the parties’ strategy. The Five Star Movement that firmly opposed the Italicum has quickly changed its mind by calling early elections and a vote with the Italicum electoral law. The political and social contexts offer in fact to the M5s the unique chance to probably win the run-off either against the centre-right, or against the centre-left. Vice versa part of the outgoing Democratic Party’s MPs do not dislike to have a CLPR, with a high district magnitude. However, a possible rebirth of the 1993-2005 electoral law style could give to Italian voters the chance to select MPs via SMD plus some percentage of deputies elected via CLPR. In this context, Renzi has decided to leave the Government also to avoid to be exposed to the opposition’s attacks while preparing a new electoral law. Leaving the floor to his former foreign affairs minister, Renzi – as outgoing party’s secretary – is free to prepare the campaign to obtain the new political investiture to run in the following elections.

The 2016 referendum has generated both political and institutional consequences. Another (!) electoral law could be approved in the following months (even beyond the punctual changes the Court would likely make). Under the Italian electoral sky, it seems that many things happen and nothing change. Theoretically, if the parliament would not approve any other change, it could also be possible to have general elections with two different systems for the Chamber of the Deputies and the Senate/Chamber/senate. It remains that Italy’s has not a coherent electoral law, still has two chambers with same powers, and the fact that the parliament would approve a new electoral law is not granted. The uncertainty is still there. We will (fortunately?) know more soon.

Gianluca Passarelli – Sapienza University, Roma
@gia_passarelli