Italy talks electoral reform

I was quite right, of course, to say of a post two months ago that it was “probably not the last Berlusconi story.” And sure enough, Silvio Berlusconi is back in the news, having struck an agreement with Matteo Renzi, the leader of the centre-left Democratic Party, to support reform of the Italian electoral system.

This is an interesting story about the party dynamics on both left and right. Renzi is bidding for increased relevance against his party colleague and fellow-centrist, prime minister Enrico Letta, at the risk of antagonising their party’s left wing by fraternising with Berlusconi. Berlusconi, convicted of tax fraud and expelled from the Senate, is trying to assert his leadership of the centre-right, threatened by the breakaway New Centre Right of his former lieutenant, Angelino Alfano.

What unites Renzi and Berlusconi is that neither has to deal with the messy reality of actually keeping together a parliamentary majority. Letta and Alfano have no such luxury: many of the MPs whose votes they depend on will be deeply sceptical about electoral reform.

To understand why, we need to look at what is being proposed and how it differs from the existing system. (Do not at this point refer to the BBC report, which discusses the politics of the move without actually providing any information about what it might be.)

Italy has two houses of parliament with almost equal powers. The lower house (the Chamber of Deputies) is elected by a relatively pure system of party-list proportional representation, with one very important refinement: the party or coalition of parties that wins the most votes (not necessarily an absolute majority) gets a bonus allocation, guaranteeing it a minimum of 54% of the seats.

Subject to that constraint, the allocation of seats to parties is proportional, provided they reach a threshold of 2% (if part of a coalition) or 4% (if running alone). The winner’s bonus gives parties maximum incentive to join coalitions, while the relatively low 2% threshold (in fact even lower, because the largest party in a coalition to fall below it also gets seats) encourages parties within a coalition to stay separate rather than merge.

The Senate uses much the same system, but the proportionality, the winner’s bonus and the thresholds (which are higher) operate within each region, not in the country as a whole. That means there is no guaranteed Senate majority, and third parties can hold the balance of power. Voting for the Senate is also confined to those over the age of 25.

Last month, Italy’s constitutional court struck down two provisions of the current electoral law: the size of the winner’s bonus in the lower house, which it described as “manifestly unreasonable”, and the closed list nature of voting, which deprives voters of the opportunity to choose individual representatives.

But the reform agenda involves more than just meeting the court’s objections on these points. Italy is almost proverbial for its governmental instability, and the long delay in forming an administration following last year’s election was felt as a particular national embarrassment. Blaming the electoral system is a natural response for both politicians and commentators.

It’s not obvious, however, that the proposed reforms will really address the problem. The relationship between electoral systems and election outcomes is far from deterministic; changes frequently result in unexpected consequences. Italians should know this as well as anyone, since the last set of changes made – by Berlusconi in 2006 – had the opposite effect to what he intended, delivering a centre-left majority at the following election.

In this case, what was announced by Renzi and Berlusconi amounts to an aspiration rather than a concrete reform: “an electoral law that would boost stability, strengthen the ‘two-party’ mechanism, and put an end to small parties’ veto power.” But a Reuters report, quoting Renzi adviser Roberto D’Alimonte, fleshes that out into three options:

the one most likely to find agreement between Renzi and Berlusconi would be proportional representation (PR) with a large number of small constituencies each electing four or five representatives and a winner’s bonus of 15 percent of seats. …

The second option is a reworked version of the electoral law in place until 2005, with three-quarters of deputies elected directly and the remainder elected by a combination of PR and a winners’ bonus.

The third system is a French-style two-round system …

Subsequent reports home in on the first of those, but with crucial details left uncertain. An analysis yesterday in Investment Europe refers to “a proportional representation electoral system similar to the one used in Spain” (a description that could fit D’Alimonte’s first option), but also says “Parliament seats won by a party or group of candidates would be proportionate to the number of votes received,” which is clearly not the case in Spain (as a quick look at the 2011 election results will confirm).

The issue is whether proportionality operates only within the (relatively small) constituencies, or whether there is some nationwide mechanism of additional seats to ensure proportionality (or something like it) at a national level.

In the first case, it might indeed tend to consolidate a two-party system (as is the case in Spain, although one must always be wary of confusing cause with effect). But for that very reason it will be fought tooth and nail by the smaller parties – including those on which the Letta government depends for its majority.

If nationwide proportionality is retained, however, the work of consolidation would have to be achieved by higher thresholds: the suggestion is “4-5% for coalition parties and 8% for single parties.” That then starts to sound more like the German system, and while Germany has enjoyed stable government with it, it doesn’t follow that Italy would as well.

Eliminating the very small parties in parliament (six parties won representation last year with less than 5% of the vote) would make only a minor contribution to stability: they have not typically been the problem. What creates instability is the propensity of the larger parties to split, rearrange themselves, switch sides and generally fail to co-operate with one another.

If Germany had the same sort of political culture, its governments would probably be just as unstable. And while it’s true that institutional arrangements can effect cultural change, it’s a slow and unpredictable process.

The biggest thing in the Renzi-Berlusconi agreement is probably the commitment to do something about the equal powers of the Senate, because that was the major problem last year. The centre-left, courtesy of the winner’s bonus (which everyone wants to retain in some form, despite judicial disapproval), won a clear majority in the lower house; it failed to form government on its own because it could not control the Senate, where the populist 5-Star Movement won the balance of power.

But it’s much easier to agree that something needs to be done than to actually swing a majority behind a particular something to do. Stay tuned: this issue won’t go away soon.



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