The Italian electoral system

The Italian 2013 political election gave out a result that is being called "the perfect storm" or the "worst possible scenario" by commentators and the traditional Italian parties themselves. The results have in fact produced an artificial majority in one branch of Parliament (Camera) and no majority in the other branch (Senato).
[This article deals with current topics, and may contain therefore in many statements the opinions of the author, though great attention was given to the data supplied.]
Bersani Berlusconi beppe Grillo Mario Monti

An aberration of the electoral system regulated by the 2005 reform (a.k.a. "Porcellum" Law) leads many smaller, often ideologically distant parties, to join in coalitions around the larger parties. As a consequence in the 2013 Italian elections the Camera has a majority premium assigned to the Centre-Left coalition (with 29.54%) and its major party, the Partito democratico (heir of the Communist Party and later Democratico di Sinistra) at 25.42%, with the most-voted party, that is to say the M5S - Movimento Cinque Stelle, a grass-root movement led by Beppe Grillo, achieving a better result at 25.55%, with no public funding and after just 3 years of existence.

Another aberration is that the relative majority coalition obtained the majority premium surpassing the other coalition (the Centre-Right led by Silvio Berlusconi) of only 0.4% (29.54 to 29.18).

The electoral law 1946 - 1993

The electoral law of 1946, with minor variations, regulated the Italian general elections until 1993.

The Deputy Legislative Decree no. 74 of 10 March 1946 was made after World War Two to manage the Constituent Assembly elections scheduled for June 2 1946, and was then accepted as electoral law by the Assembly with Law no. 6 of 20 January 1948. The proportional formula - among the purest in the world - was later devastated by Law no. 148 of 1953, promoted by president Alcide De Gasperi, on request of the government, which tried to introduce a majority premium for the coalition that would eventually achieve an absolute majority of the vote.

At that time the amendment was very strongly criticized by the opposition which called it "fraud law", and never had effect since in the next election the government parties failed to achieve the quorum established. Therefore the majority premium was abolished without ever having been applied, and the Italian electoral system found its final version in the "Testo Unico" no. 361 of 30 March 1957.

As for the Senate, election criteria were established by Law no. 29 of 6 February 1948 which contained a few small majority adjustments, within a mainly proportional framework. Also this law had its final completion with the above-mentioned Act of 1957.

  • Camera: the seats were divided depending on the population on a national basis among 32 multi-candidate constituencies. The parties had a list of candidates in each constituency, and voters could give as many as four preferences to the candidates of the chosen party. The allocation of seats was accomplished by a proportional system using the "Imperiali" quotient: the candidates with the highest number of preferences were declared elected. The remnants of seats and votes in this first phase were then grouped into one national constituency, in which seats were assigned proportionally using the Hare quotient and completing the calculation using the highest remainders.
  • Senato: the seats were divided on a regional basis, according to Art.57 of the Constitution. Each region was divided into a number of single-candidate constituencies with seats assigned. Within each constituency, the candidate who won 65% of preferences was elected: if, as usually happened, no candidate reached the difficult threshold, the votes of all candidates were grouped in party lists at a regional level, and seats were allocated using the D'Hondt method of highest averages, and inside each list the candidates with the best preference percentage were elected.
It was possible for each citizen to form a list collecting a given number of signatures. In the Senate the single candidate in each constituency was chosen by the party, while in the Camera the voters would name their candidates. In following years the 4-preference system in the Camera led to a degeneration, since candidates could make agreements and suggest to their supporting voters other 3 names to add as preferences.

The proportional system remained in force for nearly fifty years, then fell under heavy criticism in the early nineties, as it was considered the main cause of party fragmentation and government instability, and was abolished by the Italians in a referendum on 18 April 1993, leaving the field to a new electoral law based mainly on single-candidate constituencies, the "Mattarellum".

The "First Republic"

The history of the parliaments elected by proportional system, which rewarded the mass parties such as the PCI (Communist Party), PSI (Socialist Party) and DC (Democrazia Cristiana), and which was in force from 1946 to 1993, might be divided into two distinct periods. The first period, from 1953 to 1976, was characterized by an increasing concentration on the two major parties (DC and PCI). In the second period, ending in 1992, the trend was reversed and a centrifugal tendency favored protest parties (radicals and the leagues).

The stability of voting behaviors was reflected in a stability of the party system, with two main parties and a plurality of smaller groups, and a bipolar or tripolar competition, where the area of the center was "condemned" to govern, given the reluctance of voters to side for the extreme wings.

In the 1980s there was a dominance of a 5-party coalitions; however, the conflicts between the parties began to increase and led to greater competition. The PSI (Partito Socialista) proposed an institutional reform on the model of the French fifth republic, but met the opposition of the other two main parties, DC and PCI.

In the years 1989 to 1991 there were important international events - namely the end of communism regimes in Europe and the fall of the Berlin Wall - that led in 1991 to the division of the Italian PCI into PDS (Partito Democratico della Sinistra), and PRC (Rifondazione comunista, more left-wing). The fading away of the communist fears that had rewarded the Christian Democrats in the decades since 1946, and the economic crisis that led to a growth of the national debt followed by sharp tax increases fostered a widespread discontent with established parties and a rise, especially in Northern Italy, of grass-root leagues (which later merged into the Lega Nord).

In 1992 the small but influential Radical Party - which in previous years had succeded in introducing divorce and abortion into Italian law through referendums - promoted a referendum against the articles of the constiturion dealing with the electoral law in the Senate. [As a matter of fact, the Italian constitution allows referendums only to abolish existing laws. When such a referendum - which requires a minimum percentage of voters of 50% - is successful, Parliament must afterwards make a new law].

Laws 276 and 277 of 1993 - the Mattarellum

Laws no. 276 and no. 277 of August 4 1993, or "Mattarellum" Law after its rapporteur Sergio Mattarella, was a reform of the electoral system enacted after a national referendum held on 18 April 1993, during which the Italian people abrogated the then current law for the election of the senate. The new law of 1993 replaced the previous system of proportional representation in place since 1946, and remained in force until 2005 when it was replaced by the Calderoli (Porcellum) Law. The Mattarellum introduced a mixed electoral system for the election of the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies in Italy:
  • Senato: majoritarian with single ballot for the allocation of 75% of parliamentary seats, the remaining 25% seats allocated to the proportional recovery of the most-voted non-elected through a calculation mechanism called "scorporo" (=spin-off)
  • Camera: proportional with blocked lists and a 4% threshhold.
The system applied three different modes of distribution of seats (majority at the Senate, proportional in the Camera, proportional recovery in the Senate) and for this reason was also called "Minotaur" as the mythological monster part man and part bull.

The end of the First Republic

The results of the 1992 elections demonstrated the political crisis of the 5-party coalition, which did not reach an absolute majority of votes (only 48.8%). The Christian Democrats touched their lowest point (29.7%), while the only party growing was the Lega Nord. A period of crisis followed, the by then President of the Republic Francesco Cossiga resigned, judge Giovanni Falcone was assassinated, a number of criminal proceedings were opened against corrupt politicians - the so-called Tangentopoli ("tangente" means bribe). The political crisis was complicated by the financial crisis which led to new tax rises and a further deterioration of trust in the political class and the rise of new parties.

In 1994 the stalemate of the political parties led to early elections - usually considered the end of the First Republic - which were held with the Mattarella Law, and revolutionized the political system delivering the majority to the new-born Forza Italia party founded by Silvio Berlusconi.

For the first time the majority system was applied to the entire national territory, investing municipalities, provinces and regions. Greater emphasis was assigned to monocratic mandates (the Mayors of the comuni, and Presidents of Provinces and Regions), establishing a "climbing" method from local roles (like the mayor) to national roles (such as Minister). The results rewarded Berlusconi and his coalition, which won a large majority in the Camera and a slightly lower majority in the Senate, and marked a significant renewal of the political class, with more than 70% of MPs in their first term.

The Second Republic

The 1990's and first decade of the 21st century saw 5 Berlusconi governments and 4 of leftist coalitions.
  • 12th Legislature - 10 May 1994 to 17 January 1995, first Berlusconi Cabinet with a coalition Forza Italia - Lega Nord and other parties of the centre and right. The government had soon to face difficulties, such as an increase in investigations into the Premier's companies, followed by a government decree aimed at reducing the powers of the judiciary; following a proposal to limit pension benefits, the Lega Nord left the alliance, and new elections were called.
  • 13th Legislature - 17 May 1996 to 21 October 1998, first Prodi Cabinet with a coalition called "L'Ulivo" and other parties of the left and centre. The government fell in 1998 when the Communist Refoundation Party withdrew its support.
  • This led to the formation of a new Cabinet led by Massimo D'Alema as Prime Minister (First D'Alema Cabinet) that lasted from 21 October 1998 to 22 December 1999, and to a 2nd D'Alema Cabinet from 22 December 1999 to 25 April 2000, and a 2nd Amato Cabinet (25 April 2000 to 11 June 2001).
  • the 14th Legislature (30 May 2001 to 27 April 2006) saw two centre-right Cabinets, the Berlusconi II (23 april 2005 - 17 may 2006) and the Berlusconi III (23 april 2005 to 17 May 2006). During this period Berlusconi promoted the reform of the electoral system known as Porcellum.

Law no. 270 - the "porcellum"

Law no. 270 of December 21 2005 amended the Italian electoral system introducing the current rules, and replaced the previous laws 276 and 277 of 1993 (so-called Mattarellum), introducing a radically different system. It was formulated mainly by the then Minister for Reforms Roberto Calderoli that, however, as a result of the many changes introduced during the parliamentary process, called it "porcata" (= a crap) in a television interview. After that comment, political scientist Giovanni Sartori nicknamed it "porcellum" (="small pig" in vulgar Latin).

The law introduces a modified proportional representation based on coalitions, a majority premium which is managed differently in the two branches of Parliament, and blocked lists with candidates appointed by the parties with no possibility for voters to express their preferences for a candidates, who are elected according to their position in the list, assigned by the party leaders.

  • Senato: the majority premium is assigned on a regional basis, giving to the majority coalition or party in a given region at least 55% of the seats of that region. In the Molise region (2 seats) and Italians abroad constituency (6 seats) there is no majority premium.
  • Camera: a majority premium of total 340 seats is given to the relative majority party or coalition in the Camera with no minimum threshold to obtain the premium (which is the case instead in all other countries where a majority premium is present). The 12 seats assigned to the "constituency of Italians abroad", as well as the single seat of the Valle d'Aosta region are not counted in determining the winning coalition, which is also possibly unconstitutional.
The law has so far ruled the Italian general elections in 2006, 2008 and 2013.

In 2009, three referendums were held, aimed at changing the law in several points. The referendums, initially set for May 18, 2008, had been cunningly postponed to 21 June 2009, a date when in Italy is full summer, schools are closed, families with children may be on holiday, 13th graders are studying for their final examinations, and Italians may prefer to spend the Sunday on the beach instead of queueing to vote.

As was expected by the parties who wanted to keep the Porcellum in place, none of the three referendums reached the 50%+1 required threshold of voters, though 77% of those who went to the polls were for the abolition of the law.

The crisis of the Second Republic

  • the 15th Legislature began April 28, 2006 and ended April 28, 2008 and had only one government, the Prodi II Cabinet.
  • the 16th Legislature started on April 29, 2008 with a Berlusconi IV Cabinet until 16 November 2011, when following a disastrous financial situation and international distrust of the Premier especially by EU leaders, Berlusconi resigned and the President of the Republic gave to Mario Monti, a former Economy Professor at the Bocconi University of Milan, the task of creating a new Cabinet to take the urgent measures required by the EU and the financial crisis.

    According to widespread criticism, this was done with flat tax rises, increasing the burden on lower-income families, retired people and the unemployed, while protecting banks, the establishment and the richer classes.

    The Monti Cabinet was supported in Parliament by the two major parties of the right and the left and by the smaller centre parties; the Cabinet was in charge from 16 November 2011 to 22 December 2012, when Prime Minister Mario Monti resigned after the spokesman of the right party withdrew their support, and new elections were called.

  • 17th Legislature - With no winner in the Senate, and a majority premium in the Camera to the Centre-Left with only a 0.4% relative majority on the other coalition, the 2013 February elections brought the electoral system to a stalemate.
Italian Parliament in 2013

A Third Republic??

The "victory" of the anti-previous-system MoVimento 5 Stelle is seen as the collapse of the Second and the beginning of a possible Third Republic, with the enactement of at least a new electoral system and general reforms in the public administration. Beppe Grillo is tagged by many of the establishment and abroad as a "populist" leader, though he is not a new actor on the political stage, having actually spoken for 20 years against the "casta" (=the political lobbies) that has prospered on briberies, nepotism and assigned to themselves those that are deemed among the highest salaries given to elected representatives and largest benefits given to parties in the world.

According to Grillo, the "casta" increased the national debt and taxes, actually strangling the Italian production system made of hundreds of thousands of small and very small, often family-run companies, already hit by the world financial crisis, the new global mechanisms, the financial interests and immobilism of the European Union.

As a matter of fact, innumerable court proceedings started by Italian judges are under way against possible corrupted politicians, and the various Berlusconi governments have repeately tried to limit the power of the judicial branch and introduce immunity for politicians.

Throughout Italy there is a widespread discontent with the inability, even of the technical government of Mario Monti, to re-distribute the sacrifices necessary to repay the national debt, to heal and reform the economy, to help those that are suffering most from the crisis, to change the electoral system.

The disgust with the "rotten politicians", the widespread social injustice, and the new "radical" (but widely shared) and according to the better-off portion of the Italian society "dangerous" proposals of the Movimento Cinque Stelle for a direct democracy with online voting, transparent political choices, greener and sustainable economy, free broad-band Internet to share participation and culture, drastic cuts in high salaries and benefits, sharp criticism of a media-manipulated information, have received on 24 February 2013 the endorsement of 25.5% of voters in the Camera (where all citizens vote from 18 years of age) and 23.79% in the Senato (where all citizens vote from 25 years of age).

According to what Beppe Grillo says on his blog on 26 February 2013, after all votes have been counted, "Sta arrivando la primavera" (=spring is coming), which reminds of Shelley's lines "If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?"

And in this February that is leading towards a new Pope as well, armies of beautiful young and old Italian people, it does not matter whether Christians or Buddhists, Muslims or non-believers, can hear the echoes from mountains to plains, from hills to seas of the powerful unforgettable words of Karol Woytila "Non abbiate paura"...

Author: an Italian who refuses to lose hope in the future.

Useful Sources

    [Some attention should be given to the possibly editor-biased opinions in the Wikipedia articles]
  • Wikipedia, Italian general election, 2013
  • Wikipedia, the Centre-Left Coalition Italy. Common Good
  • Wikipedia, the Centre-Right Coalition : not yet available
  • Wikipedia, MoVimento 5 Stelle : only a stub in English, in Italian

  • MoVimento 5 Stelle : the official Blog beppegrillo.it