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.