Italy’s electoral law: the rolling pin and the pigsty

The one thing everyone agrees on is that the Italian electoral system needs to change and that it should be a priority of this government. No one, of course, is agreed on what changes are necessary

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Can Italy reach a consensus?
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Tim Hedges
On 24 May 2013 09:24

It is early to say, but Enrico Letta may turn out to be a fairly nifty political operator. The words on everyone’s lips at the moment are youth unemployment, and recent figures show one in four Italians aged between 15 and 29 is not in education, employment or training. But Letta has batted this one neatly towards the EU, which has promised a summit on the subject (that will warm the hearts of the unemployed). This leaves him more time to deal with his brittle coalition.

Every country suffers coalition problems – Mrs Merkel has problems with her supporters and the coalition in the UK is occasionally far from happy – but there is nothing anywhere like Italy’s grand coalition.

Berlusconi has threatened to bring it down a number of times (the Government has not yet been in office a month). Some on the left are declaring that Berlusconi formally be declared ineligible to stand for parliament due to his convictions (I don’t mean his beliefs – he hasn’t any – but his sentences from the lower courts). Silvio has said, naturally, that if this continues he will bring the government down.

Meanwhile another Democrat has proposed that only registered, formalised parties should be able to stand, thereby excluding Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement. Grillo has said there will be violence on the streets if this happens. Happy, happy, happy.

So Letta has swerved elegantly on to the subject of electoral law. Perhaps the one thing everyone agrees on is that the Italian electoral system needs to change and that it should be a priority of this government. No one, of course, is agreed on what changes are necessary.

After the war, Italy settled into a truce between Christian Democrats and Communists. It was widely felt to be unhealthy, and in 1991 a referendum was held which by a large majority abolished the multiple preference system, which was thought to have entrenched the large political groupings, merely having people conduct their disagreements within the party rather than across party lines.

For a while Italy subsisted on a system known as the Mattarellum, having been designed by the politician Sergio Mattarella (Mattarello means rolling pin in Italian). It was this which brought Silvio Berlusconi to power in 1994. It was a system of truly astonishing complexity. Three quarters of seats in the lower house would be elected by a plurality system, whilst 25 percent would be by proportional representation. In the Senate, which is elected by region, 75 percent went to single name candidates, whereas 25 percent were subject to a unique form of proportional representation which compensated the smaller parties for not winning.

By this time Italians were becoming expert on electoral law and proportional representation, but losing interest. Several attempts at change failed to produce a referendum with a quorum (over 50 percent turnout). One in 1999 proposed a system whereby 25 percent of the seats would be given to those who came second.

The Mattarellum clearly couldn’t survive so the Italians made it more complex. Under the system enacted in 2005, coalitions are encouraged, and the winning coalition gets 55 percent of the seats in the lower house, whilst in the Senate the winner in each region gets his 55 percent. The remaining votes are distributed around the other parties.

This system, allotted a Latin name in irony, is known as the Porcellum, the pigsty, and it is this which produced the parliamentary logjam at the last election, where the Democratic Party garnered its 55 percent in the Chamber of Deputies, but the sum of its regional 55 percent for the Senate didn’t add up to a majority. Both houses are of equal weight for the passing of laws.

Now the courts have weighed in, with the Court of Cassation recommending that the Constitutional Court have a look at the Porcellum. They don’t like the 55 percent presented to the winner, since it doesn’t reflect the people’s votes, and they don’t like the party list system which means people can’t vote for whom they want, the heads of the parties allocating the seats to the faithful.

So the opinion pollsters and the electoral calculators are working overtime, as the main protagonists try to evaluate what each possibility means for them. A number of options are being proposed. Firstly that the office of president is directly elected, rather than by an electoral college of MPs, senators and regional representatives, which brought chaos last time. Silvio Berlusconi likes this idea because he wants to have a stab at it himself (did I mention that the office carries immunity from prosecution?).

Second, some are suggesting a return to the rolling pin, the enormously difficult Mattarellum, but whilst it may be fairer than the Pigsty there is little enthusiasm.

Lastly, some believe that the state of affairs which persists can only be resolved by making the Senate less important than the Chamber of Deputies, as is the case in the UK.

What will Letta do? The pressure is on from the courts and the President is telling him to do something quick in case someone pulls the plug on the coalition and Italy has to vote again soon.

What is likely to get through by summer is an amendment to the Porcellum, providing for a reduced winner’s premium applied to anyone who gets more than 40 percent. Lawyers believe this will get past the Courts’ disapproval, although it would seem to do nothing about the closed lists. The idea is that if this passes they can consider the remaining changes con calma.

Renato Brunetta of the centre-right calls this a minimalist reform. Some call it a compromise. Some call it the patch which is worse than the hole it is supposed to cover. And some say it is a stitch-up. But that is what it looks as if we will get: major reform can wait. 

Tim Hedges is a weekly columnist for the Commentator. He previously worked in corporate finance before moving to Rome where he works as a freelance writer and novelist

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