Italy’s new electoral law

Guest post by Filippo Tronconi


On Monday, 4 May, 2015 the Chamber of deputies has finally approved Italy’s new electoral system. It has not been a consensual decision, as Prime Minister Matteo Renzi had initially hoped. Although Berlusconi’s Forza Italia had voted in favor of an identical text in the previous passage at the Senate, it subsequently withdrew its support. Part of the Democratic Party led by Renzi himself has opposed the reform too, together with Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement and other minor opposition parties.

The new electoral law, similar to the one adopted in 2005 and invalidated by the Constitutional Court in 2013 is a bonus-adjusted proportional representation system. At the same time, many differences have been introduced, the most important of which are 1) the fact that the majority bonus is now allocated to the most voted list, and not to a coalition of parties; 2) a run-off between the two most voted lists is foreseen in the event that no one reaches 40% of valid votes in the first round; 3) a national threshold is set at 3% of valid votes, in place of the multiple thresholds of the old system; 4) preference voting has been re-introduced.

Let’s analyze the functioning of the new system in detail.

Italy’s 630 Deputies are divided into 618 members elected from the national territory, and 12 members elected by Italians living abroad. The latter are elected through proportional representation. Of the 618 national MPs, 340 are allocated to the most voted list, provided that it reaches 40% of the valid votes nationwide. In case no lists reach this threshold, a run-off is held two weeks later between the two most voted lists. Of course, in the unlikely event that a party obtains 340 seats thanks to the proportional distribution, no further bonus is awarded. Therefore, whatever the result, this is a majority-assuring system. Either after the first or the second round, one list gets 340 seats, equal to 54%. A few additional seats are likely to join the majority from the ones elected by Italians living abroad. The remaining seats are allocated proportionally (via Hare quota and largest remainders) to the other parties obtaining at least 3% of the valid votes nationwide; parties below this threshold do not get any parliamentary representation.

While the bonus is allocated in a nationwide arena of competition, intraparty competition is based on 100 districts electing 3 to 9 MPs, depending on the resident population (with particular arrangements for the two Alpine regions of Valle d’Aosta and Trentino-Alto Adige, characterized by the presence of Francophone and German linguistic minorities). In each district, lists are made of a head-of-list, whose name is printed beside the symbol of the respective party, and the remaining candidates, whose number range from half to the full number of seats to be allocated in that district. Voters can express one or two preferences for the “open” candidates (i.e. excluding the head-of-list) of their party, writing the corresponding name or names on the ballot. If a party is entitled to only one seat in a district, that is reserved to the head-of list. If more than one seat must be allocated, they go, after the head-of-list, to the candidates obtaining more preference votes. Heads-of-list (and only they) can be candidates in up to ten different districts; if elected in more than one district they will opt for one after the elections. The remaining districts where a head-of-list has been elected will allocate those seats to candidates chosen by preference vote.

In sum, this is a flexible list system, where voters are allowed to choose among candidates only beyond the head-of-list. The most voted list will have 340 seats, with 10 to 100 of them being filled by “closed” candidates and the remaining 240 to 330 by “open” candidates, depending on how extensively the multi-candidacy rule is used. For opposition parties, the balance between “closed” and “open” MPs will mainly depend on vote fragmentation. In general, the smaller the party, the higher the chances to have only heads-of-list elected.

Several rules are oriented to increase a gender-balanced representation: 1) heads-of-list of the same gender cannot exceed 60% within the districts of each region; 2) “open” candidates are alternated by gender; failing to comply with such rules determines the exclusion of the list from the ballot; 3) voters who express two preference votes need to choose one man and one woman; if not, the second preference is invalid.

One final important remark is in order. All the above refers to the Chamber of Deputies only. The electoral system for the Senate is currently the 2005 one as modified by the ruling of the Constitutional Court, which means open-list proportional representation without majority bonus. A comprehensive Constitutional reform is currently under way in Parliament, which would transform the Senate into a sort of federal chamber, indirectly elected by Regional assemblies and without the power to vote the confidence to the executive. For this reason the new electoral rule for the Chamber will be effective only from July 2016, when the Constitutional reform is expected to complete its second reading in Parliament. It is clear that the effects of the electoral reform would be seriously jeopardized in the event that the current symmetrical bicameralism remains in place.

Overall, the new electoral law is intended to have a strong majoritarian imprinting, similar to the 2005 system for the Chamber of Deputies. The nationwide competition for the bonus makes the Italian territory similar to one big district, and this is expected to lead towards a two-party equilibrium in the long run. On the other hand, the relatively low threshold will leave room for small parties, though preventing them from gaining a pivotal coalitional power, as currently happens. Clearly, nothing prevents parties from agreeing to form ad hoc joint lists before elections and splitting once in parliament, although this will have the cost of not displaying their own symbol on the ballot. Furthermore, the new electoral system cannot be expected to reduce the traditional factionalism of Italian parties, nor the trasformismo of elected representatives. But this is probably something one would better avoid to expect from any electoral system.

Model of the new ballot:
new ballot italy

Young and inexperienced–how common?

New Italian PM Matteo Renzi has never served in the national legislature or cabinet (till now), and is only 39. These are unusual characteristics. Usually parliamentary parties prefer to “vet” their executive talent for a while through having them serve in the legislature and/or cabinet before being elevated to the top job (much more so than in presidential systems, where the candidate for the top job has to be able to win a plurality or majority as an individual–see Samuels and Shugart, 2010, 2014).

How common is it for the head of government of a parliamentary democracy to be as young and inexperienced as Renzi? Some insight comes from the Executives Biographical data of Samuels and Shugart. Here I offer some lists selected with intent to compare Renzi to other PMs. Caveat: in addition to being post-WWII only, the dataset ends with 2005. I won’t be updating it any time soon, but of course I would welcome readers’ additions via comments to this entry.

The first list (Dropbox link) is of all the parliamentary PMs in the dataset who had never served in the legislature before, along with how many years they had served in the cabinet prior to becoming PM (yrscab) and their age when starting their stint as PM (agestart). The list contains only 24 names–these are all the PMs in parliamentary systems who had no prior legislative service. That’s out of 411 total. So lack of legislative experience is quite rare. Exactly one of them was younger than Renzi is now (Vasile Petru Tarlev of Moldova, 38 when he took the job in 2001). Several on this list can be explained through newness of the democratic regime itself (e.g. Mandela) or immediate post-war years. You will note the multiple appearances of a few countries* on the list, including… Italy.

A second list has all parliamentary prime ministers who assumed the position before the age of 40. It is also a short list, and it is heavily dominated by young democracies, mainly in Central-Eastern Europe. It looks like our youth champion is Pandeli Majko of Albania, 31 when he assumed the job in 1998, followed by Mart Laar of Estonia, 32 when he became PM in 1992; Laar began a second stint seven years later, when he was still about the age of Renzi now. We also see from the list that, despite their youth, some of these PMs had considerable experience already in the legislature (e.g. Felix Gaillard of France, 10 years**) and a few had cabinet service (e.g. Stanislav Gross of the Czech Republic and Aigars Kalvitis, 4 years each).

One more list of background relevant to Renzi: how common is it for a PM to have been a mayor, but not a legislator or cabinet minister before elevation to the top job? Renzi might be only the third (see caveat above), following Jirí Paroubek of the Czech Republic (2005) and Jawaharlal Nehru of India (1947, the year of Indian independence). Upon assuming office, Paroubek was 53 and Nehru 58.***

So Renzi’s combination of youth and inexperience, aside from having been mayor of a major city (Florence), is indeed unusual.

Previous related post: Age of PMs and presidents upon assuming the position, in new and old democracies.

* There are five Netherlands PMs on this list, which is a bit surprising. Service in the senate, perhaps? And that makes me wonder if we counted service in the Italian senate, which we should have, given it has confidence powers over the cabinet, unlike most other second chambers.

** Ilir Meta of Albania, 15 years service as MP, is, I am sorry to say, a mistake in the data! He was born in 1969, elected to parliament in 1992, and became PM in 1999 (not 2001, as the list indicates), according to an online bio.

*** Nehru was a mayor? That is what the dataset says. According to Wikipedia, he was elected chairman of the Allahabad Municipal Board in 1923. (Yes, students, I can use Wikipedia. This is a blog post.)

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!