It’s 2006 all over again

*MEDIA CRITICISM UPDATE 6.35pm (Melbourne time)*

OK, that’s reassuring but also scary. SBS news just told viewers that Berlusconi’s party was ahead in the Senate, evidently making the same mistake that I made and fixed about four hours ago.

*FINAL CORRECTION ON SENATE NUMBERS 3.50am (Italian time)*

Sorry, having just warned in the previous update about the Trentino-South Tyrol and Valle d’Aosta seats, I then forgot about them again myself: adding them in brings the centre-left’s numbers in the Senate to 120, against 117 for the centre-right. The six overseas seats look likely to break four for the centre-left, one for Monti’s group and one for the independent association of overseas Italians based in South America.

Unless something dramatic happens, that looks like a clear plurality for the centre-left – but as I said before, all it really counts for is bragging rights.

*FURTHER UPDATE 3.15am (Italian time)*

Well, that’s a wrap for the night. Counting in Italy proper is complete; the centre-left finished with a lead of 124,000 votes or just over a third of a percentage point in the lower house. That will give them a majority, albeit a morally dubious one since they have less than 30% of the vote. But that’s how the system works.

Bragging rights in the Senate – which is all that a plurality will amount to – are going to depend on the overseas seats. With the Italian seats all decided the centre-right have 116 against the centre-left’s 113, with 54 for the 5-Star Movement and 18 for Monti’s group. [No, that’s not right: see correction above] There are six overseas seats to come, and there are also four life senators, of whom Mario Monti is one.

But none of that changes the fundamental fact that the 5-Star Movement, with the balance of power in the Senate, can make or break the next government. The Guardian reports that their spokesman “avoided ruling out a deal to elect the country’s next prime minister”, saying “we’ll meet, listen to the web and decide what to do.” But the financial markets are clearly unhappy about the idea.

Now go and read Guy Rundle’s take on it in Crikey. He makes a number of good points, including the fact that the 5-Star Movement did noticeably worse in the Senate than in the Chamber because they have strong support among the young, and so would have been hurt by the minimum voting age of 25. (It’s actually a bit surprising the difference wasn’t greater; it was less than 2%.)

*UPDATE 1.15am (Italian time)*

The centre-left now seems to be out of danger in the Chamber of Deputies. They’re still about 125,000 votes ahead with only 36 polling places to come, and half of those are in Rome, where they have a clear lead so far. Most of the overseas polling places are also yet to report (just 434 in out of 1,467 – they’re the tab labelled “estero” on the results website), and they should favor the centre-left as well.

The Senate is still incomplete, but it doesn’t matter much because it’s clear that any two of the big three – the centre-left, the centre-right and the 5-Star Movement – will have a majority. The latest results put the centre-left with a narrow plurality, 120 to 115 (that’s not immediately obvious from La Republicca‘s projection; you have to read the fine print that tells you about the seats from Trentino-South Tyrol and Valle d’Aosta). The six overseas Senate seats are yet to come.

Media coverage has been pretty awful; the BBC is still telling people that “Pier Luigi Bersani’s centre-left bloc is set for a narrow win in the lower house but Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right may take control of the Senate.” This ignores the fundamental difference between the houses: a narrow plurality in the lower house really is a win, because of the bonus seats, but a plurality in the Senate – which is the most Berlusconi has ever been able to hope for – is almost meaningless. There’s a lot we don’t know, but we do know that nobody will have “control” of the Senate.

——-

It’s midnight in Italy (11am Melbourne time), and for the second time in three elections Italians are going to bed – and indeed will get up the next morning – not knowing who will form the next government. The centre-left coalition led by Pier Luigi Bersani is better placed, but only by the skin of its teeth.

I was just thinking yesterday that we haven’t had any close elections for a while, but Italy has put on a real cliffhanger. With one crucial difference (which I’ll come to shortly), it’s uncannily like 2006, the election that ended Silvio Berlusconi’s second term of office. Like then, the exit polls showed a clear victory for the centre-left, but as results came in they started to tell a different story (here’s my report at the time).

With counting almost complete (99.8% of polling places counted), Bersani’s coalition is currently on 29.55% of the lower house vote, fractionally ahead of Berlusconi’s centre-right with 29.18%, a margin of about 125,000 votes (in 2006 it was about 40,000). The populist 5-Star Movement led by comedian Beppo Grillo is snapping at their heels with 25.5%, while Mario Monti’s centrist list has flopped with only 10.6%. (Official results here. They’re in Italian but it’s fairly straightforward; “camera” is lower house and “senato” is Senate.)

A narrow win in the lower house is enough, because the system gives the plurality coalition there a bonus allocation of seats to ensure a majority. But to form a government, a majority in the Senate is almost equally essential, and it has no such guarantee: there are bonus allocations of seats, but they work region by region, not nationally.

And that brings us to the big difference from 2006. Then it was a two-horse race, so the centre-left, by great good luck, was able to snatch a narrow Senate majority as well (although it all fell apart within two years). This election, however, is a four-way contest, so no-one is going to be even close to a Senate majority.

La Republicca projects Senate seats as follows:

  • Centre-left   113
  • Centre-right   114
  • 5-Star Movement   58
  • Centrists   16

That leaves only two possibilities for a majority. Either Bersani and Berlusconi reach some sort of understanding, if not a grand coalition, or else one of them comes to terms with the populists. But if Bersani retains his lead in the lower house, then he’s the one who needs a Senate majority; a Berlusconi-Grillo deal would mean deadlock, and almost certainly fresh elections.

Further updates during the day as things (potentially) become clearer.

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