Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The new Italian electoral system: a real solution to instability?

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has recently introduced a proposal to change Italy's electoral system after the Italian Constitutional Court declared that the current system was illegal. The system is important, as Italy's future political and economic stability may depend on whether this system can produce stable government, or whether, like so many other grand plans for Italy's elections, it falls.
But before we look at this system, it is important to look at how Italy's previous systems have worked, and why they failed to produce the holy grail of Italian elections: strong, stable majority government.

Proportional Representation (1946-1992)

The system used for the Constituent Assembly, and for all Lower House elections until 1992, was a system of two-tier proportional representation. Italy was divided into multi-member constituencies, electing an average of 20 MPs each. Lists were fully open, and voters had three or four preference votes for candidates within party lists.  In each constituency, the Imperiali quota was used (votes/seats+2), and seats were awarded to parties for each full quota. All remaining seats and votes were transferred to an upper level, where seats were awarded using the Hare quota and the largest remainder method. Until 1953, these seats were allocated to specific closed party lists at the upper level; after this date, however, seats were allocated to the best losers at the constituency level.

The system used for the Senate was, at least on paper, very different. The country was divided into 237 single-seat constituencies, but the Senate as a whole elected 315 members. To win in a single seat constituency, a candidate needed 65% of the votes. Only a few senators (members of the South Tyrol People's Party) won in this method. All votes that did not elect a senator in the single-seat districts were transferred to the upper level regional district, where seats were distributed using the D'Hondt method.

The main drawback was the high degree of proportionality. No majority government was elected from 1948 onwards, and as a result Italy was mostly governed by a loose alliance called the Pentapartio or 'five parties'. These parties were the Christian Democrats (centrist), the Socialist Party (centre to centre-left), the Republican Party (centre to centre-right), the Liberal Party (centre-right), and the Social Democratic Party (centre to centre-left). They were mostly opposed by the Communist Party and the neo-facist Italian Social Movement, but there were a few minor opposition parties such as the Radical Party (socially liberal) and the Proletarian Democracy (far-left communist). The low threshold for entering the parliament (one regional seat and 300,000 votes nationwide for the lower house) meant that a new party could easily get started up.
The system meant that Italy had a long string of unstable governments mostly led by the Christian Democrats for the entire period of this system. 

Another problem concerned the system of preference votes. While it seemed like a democratic system on paper, the fact is that it was used, especially in the South, as a means of multiplying and trading blocks of loyal followers in order to get certain people into parliament.

During the late 1980's, Italy's political system experienced a number of significant changes. The Communists dissolved themselves, and formed the new Democratic Party of the Left, a politically traumatic event that split the left vote between the new party and the Communist Refoundation Party (a group made up of radical Communist hardliners opposed to the name change). New political forces sprung up, such as the Northern League, a populist right-wing party, and the Green Lists, a green political party opposed to nuclear power.

A number of corruption scandals that involved senior politicians in the Pentapartio parties led to a poor result for the major parties at the 1992 election, and an increase in support for the Northern League and other populist, anti-corruption parties. There was a significant change in the electoral system at this election; voters had only one preference vote, no matter how many seats the constituency elected. 

The parliament that resulted was a very split one (results here-much more detailed than Wikipedia, but in Italian, so Google Translate may be useful). No one party, or group of two parties, had a majority; neither did the Pentapartio, a situation which paralysed government.

Following the election, a referendum was called to change the system of electing the Senate. As Italian referendums can only repeal laws, the referendum was on the topic of removing the 65% threshold. This would create a more majoritarian system, as all single-member districts would elect a senator based on plurality, but there would still be a proportional tier that would compensate for the disproportionality.

This spurred the government on, and during late 1993, the government introduced a bill for a new system, which I describe below.

Scorporo (1994-2001)

The government, as one of its last actions in office, introduced the scorporo (Italian for subtraction) system. I have already explained the system for the Senate, but the scorporo applied only the house.

The system worked like this: Italy was divided into 475 single-member constituencies, but there were 630 seats (the other 155 were elected by proportional representation). Voters had two votes: one was for a candidate in their single-member constituencies, and one was a vote for a party in the proportional seats. In the single-member constituencies, the candidate with the most votes won. There was a more complicated procedure for the proportional tier, however. For a start, all the ballots were counted up, and any parties that did not win 4% were removed from the count. Following this, all votes for runner-up candidates in a constituency that a party had won were removed from that party's list total. Seats were then allocated to parties using the Droop quota (votes/seats+1) and largest remainders, and this seat allocation was then allocated back to regions, also using the Droop quota. (Here's a more detailed explanation)

This system did indeed provide relatively stabler government than the previous system. It also reduced Italy's political system to more of a two-party system. However, the system had some serious problems.

The main problem was the blackmail power that the smaller parties received. A candidate from a small left-wing party in a marginal constituency could fatally split the vote, and elect a right-wing candidate or vice versa. Small parties demanded safe constituencies from the larger parties, which led to parties that could not elect members through proportional representation electing members in the constituencies, a process known as the 'proportionalisation' of the single-member constituencies.

It also did not mean complete stability. Silvio Berlusconi's first government ended abruptly after the Northern League left over corruption, and the centre-left government of Romano Prodi fell after communist senators voted against the government on certain issues of foreign policy. 

Another more technical problem was the possibility of 'decoy lists'. During the 2001 election, both parties registered some of their candidates to decoy lists. These lists did not campaign, received tiny amounts of votes, but had all the votes for the large parties subtracted from their total. This removed the connection between the constituencies and the party list tiers, and created a system of 'parallel voting".

Because of these problems, and perhaps for partisan advantage, the Berlusconi government replaced the scorporo with a system that is described below.

Fixed Ratio-Proportional Representation (2005-2013) 

The Berlusconi government introduced a system of proportional representation, but with a very large bonus for the largest group. For the lower house, the party or coalition that won the most votes nationwide automatically won 55% of the seats, unless they won 55% of the seats without the bonus, in which case the system became pure proportional representation. There was a threshold of 10% for coalitions, 2% for parties in coalitions with 10%, and 4% for parties outside coalitions. If a party won over 4%, but was in a coalition that did not win 10%, the party could still win seats.

For the Senate, a similar system applied, except that it was applied on a regional basis, and the thresholds were different. A party or coalition winning the most votes in the region would win 55% of seats, and there was a threshold of 20% for coalitions, 8% for individual parties, and 3% for parties in coalition.

This system, despite providing guaranteed majority government in the lower house, had a serious problem. In every election, the Senate has had a narrower majority than the lower house, and as every Italian government must have the confidence of both houses, this means that if a government has the 55% in the lower house, but a minority in the Senate, the lower house majority is useless.

This is the situation in the current parliament. The governing Democratic Party-Left Ecology Freedom coalition has a comfortable majority in the lower house, but needed the support of Mario Monti and Silvio Berlusconi's parties. After a split in Berlusconi's Forza Italia party, and the formation of the moderate New Centre-Right party, the government no longer needs Berlusconi's support, but still has a precarious majority in the Senate.

The system is also very disproportional. It is this disproportionality that has caused the Constitutional Court challenge, and which has meant that new Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has had to put together a new system

The new system

The new system has multiple changes. For a start, the lower house will have electorates, which will elect 3-6 members each. These electorates will have shorter closed lists. There will be a higher threshold of 5% for parties in coalition, 12% for coalitions and 8% for independent parties. There will also be a changed majority bonus. Instead of the largest party or coalition getting 55% of the votes, the largest party or coalition will get a bonus of 18%, as long as that party gets 35% of the vote. A second round is held if no party gets 35%.

Admittedly, the details are rather sketchy. I have been unable to find more information. But from what I have found, the system appears to be a rather draconian measure to produce a government. The thresholds will be one of the world's highest (as far as I know, only Turkey's threshold is higher). The possibility for coalitions to be created for purely opportunistic reasons remains. Closed lists stay, despite being shorter. A regionalist party can win a significant number of votes in a certain area, and still win no seats, while a party with a small number of votes in this area that crosses the threshold can win significant representation in that area.

Another problem is the size of parties in coalitions. If a coalition wins 35% of the vote and the 18% majority bonus, any party within that coalition may leave, an action that would certainly bring the government down. The new system does not apply to the Senate, either, though the Renzi government apparently intends to reduce the powers of the Senate.

Italy has many long-term problems with its electoral system. Removing the power of the Senate to vote confidence in the government will go a long way, but the new electoral system will not improve Italy's democracy, and will probably go down the same path as previous Italian systems.

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