How people elect parliaments
Italians go to the polls on Sunday, but seem unlikely to end up with a happy parliament.
The nation’s 48 million voters will elect the two chambers of their national legislature – the Camera dei Deputati and the Senato.
But Italy has problems both of a volatile partisan conflict, and of defects in the design of the electoral systems.
Italy has famously found it difficult to maintain stable governments. Italian parties tend more often to find ways of vetoing each other from governing, rather than working together in stable coalitions.
They also have a unique system of requiring governments to wrangle majority support not only in a lower house of their parliament, but in both houses.
No single political party ever wins the support of a majority of Italian voters. At present the nation’s tentatively governing centre-left Democratic Party is sharing voter support with smaller left-wing parties.
The political right is also divided amongst the Forza Itality party of former PM Silvio Burlusconi (who cannot himself seek office due to his status as a convicted criminal), the Northern League, a small far-right movement named Brothers of Italy, and other minor parties.
But the elephant in the room is the 5 Star Movement, garnering support from millions of Italians who have simply despaired of both the centre-left and centre-right. Founded earlier this decade, the “5*M” has no governing experience apart from leading the municipal government in Rome, not entirely happily.
So long as 5*M exists, and its members and the other main coalitions of legislators loath each other, majority government in Italy seems impossible.
Why Italy’s Election is such a mess (interview with Professor Hans Noel, Georgetown University – Bloomberg News)
How Italy’s new electoral system works (Marco Bertache, Bloomberg news)
Understanding Italy’s Electoral System: It’s complicated (Dr John Hajek, Election Watch, University of Melbourne)
Will Burlesconi make a comeback? (Dr John Hajek, Election Watch, University of Melbourne)
To address the problems of party conflict, in the 1990s the Italian electoral system was changed to include an rule that the party of coalition that won the most votes in any election was simply given bonus seats to lift it up to 55% of the seats in the Camera.
A similar rule applied for Senato elections, but it applied separately in each region, and did not actually guarantee that the Camera majority group would also have a majority in the Senato.
For some years now the Italian parliament has been struggling to reform the electoral system to something more logical. The nation’s constitutional court struck down one effort, and voters rejected a referendum proposal that would have ended the two-chamber double majority rule.
In desperation last year, and faced with opinion polls suggesting the 5*M had become the leading party in the electorate, legislators of the centre-left and centre-right agreed to repeal the leading-party bonus seat rule.
What they came up with is a system where around 37% of the nation’s politicians – in both houses – will be elected in single-member electoral divisions by plurality voting; the first-past-the-post system which reformers in other nations are determined to reject.
Another 2% of Camera members are elected by Italians living overseas, using a mix of proportional and single-member methods.
But the bulk of the seats – 61-63% of the total – of each of the two parliamentary chambers will be filled by party list appointments using a proportional representation system.
These composite arrangements will not in fact bring about houses of parliament where parties hold seats in proportion to their national votes – the two parts of each chamber are simply separately elected.
The resulting system probably works heavily against the centre-left parties, including the incumbent government. The Democratic Party is only running in third place in nationwide polls. Under the plurality rule, a distorted number of the single-member seats look likely to be won by either the centre-right parties – which share distinct regional bases and can avoid directly competing against one another – or by the 5*M candidates.
The bulk of the seats that are allocated to political party candidate lists will not help much to create any stable majority.
Italy seems doomed to have at least three significant party blocs unwilling to work with one another, together with several minor and regional parties to complicate matters.
And the two-chamber rule for holding government will still be in place.
To make this weekend’s events even more dramatic, the Italian landscape, like much of Europe, is laboring under extreme cold weather conditions driven in from Siberia.