Italy’s new election rules are supposed to make its government more stable. Don’t count on it

Attendees listen to a speech by Silvio Berlusconi, leader of the Forza Italia party during a campaign event in Milan on Feb. 25. Elections will take place on March 4. (Federico Bernini/Bloomberg)
Attendees listen to a speech by Silvio Berlusconi, leader of the Forza Italia party during a campaign event in Milan on Feb. 25. Elections will take place on March 4. (Federico Bernini/Bloomberg)

Italians go to the polls on March 4 for a general election — but revamped voting procedures, a large number of undecided voters and a crowded field leave the outcome up in the air.

Here’s how the new electoral law is likely to play out for the three main competitors, which are Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right coalition, including his Forza Italia (FI) party, the Northern League (LN) and Brothers of Italy (FDI); former prime minister Matteo Renzi’s center-left coalition, which includes his incumbent Democratic Party (PD); and the populist, anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) led by Luigi Di Maio. 

The how and why of Italy’s new electoral rules

After a frantic period characterized by electoral reform in 2015, a failed constitutional referendum in 2016, and two rulings by the Constitutional Court that radically changed the preexisting electoral rules in 2014 and in 2017, respectively, Italy ended up with two different electoral systems based on proportional representation.

This prompted the Italian Parliament to pass a new electoral law in 2017, known as the Rosato law (or Rosatellum), which provides for the adoption of a mixed electoral system combining majoritarian and proportional rules. The rationale for the change was to reintroduce some majoritarian elements to favor governability and encourage pre-electoral coalitions. The law passed with a large majority but faced opposition from M5S — which explicitly refuses coalitions with other parties and thus claimed that the law was designed to prevent the party from going to power.

Italians get one vote for the Chamber of Deputies and one vote for the Senate. Under the new rules, 232 of 630 seats in the Chamber and 116 of 315 Senate seats will now be selected from single-member districts (SMDs) according to a plurality rule — the candidate with the most votes claims the seat.

The remaining 398 seats in the Chamber and 199 Senate seats — including 12 Chamber and 6 Senate seats reserved for the representatives of Italians living abroad — are allocated via a proportional representation (PR) system, using a party-list approach.

Voters get a fused vote, meaning that a vote for a party list automatically extends to the SMD candidate supported by that party list, and vice versa. In the case of a coalition of parties supporting an SMD candidate, a vote for that candidate extends pro-quota to all the party lists belonging to the coalition, i.e., proportionally to the total votes each party list obtained in that district.

In any case, voters can’t do a split-ticket vote, one for a party list and one for an SMD candidate not supported by that party list. This means the opportunities for tactical choices are limited and voter choice will be driven mainly by the preference for a specific candidate or loyalty to a specific party list.

There are new thresholds at the national level

The revamped party list rules mean that a coalition needs at least 10 percent of the vote to claim PR seats — while parties need to win 3 percent to get a share of the seats, regardless of whether they are part of a coalition or run alone. To curb party fragmentation, the law provides for the exclusion of the votes cast for parties below 1 percent from the total of the coalition — thus they do not contribute to the allocation of seats for their coalition. Moreover, parties must now move toward gender parity as the law requires that no party list can be formed with more than 60 percent of same-sex candidates.

Overall, the weight of the majoritarian/SMD component in the new system is a little more than one-third of the total, while the PR component accounts for just under two-thirds of the total seats. The SMD-plurality and PR arenas, however, are not independent but intertwined with each other. Indeed, candidates in SMDs need the backing of one or more party lists that, in turn, compete for the allocation of PR seats.

What’s the likely outcome, then?

The new system reintroduces SMD seats but makes the election more likely to result in a hung parliament with no clear winner. This is what happened in the last election in 2013 — when a shift from a bipolar, center-left vs. center-right system to a multipolar system with the M5S in play occurred.

To claim the majority of seats in Parliament and thus form a government outright, any party or coalition of parties needs to win at least 40 percent of the PR seats and 70 percent of the SMD seats. This is a difficult, though not impossible, goal, considering the presence of three political formations of more or less equal electoral strength.

Indeed, according to the latest poll by the Italian Centre for Electoral Studies, none of the three main competitors comes close. In the election for the Chamber of Deputies, the center-right is leading with about 35 percent — possibly giving it 43 percent of the total seats — while the M5S trails with about 29 percent of votes/30 percent of seats, and the center-left looks likely to claim 27 percent of votes/24 percent of seats. This result would restore Berlusconi to political life despite his 2013 conviction for tax fraud and being banned from running or holding public office; however, it would not give his center-right coalition enough seats to form a government outright.

If the newly elected Parliament can’t agree to form a government by summer 2018, it will be dissolved. A more probable scenario would see Italy’s next government be formed on the basis of post-electoral bargaining among parties — perhaps even a parliamentary majority that cuts across coalition borders.

At this point, there could be a grand governing coalition involving the Democratic Party and Forza Italia, including some minor centrist parties as well. A second outcome could see the emergence of an anti-establishment governing coalition, consisting of M5S, LN and, possibly, FDI. The first option may leave the new government with too little support. The second option seems more in the realm of political fiction.

This may leave Italy with a third potential outcome: a technocratic and/or transitional government with a limited program, supported by as many parties as possible, waiting for anyone to break the deadlock or call a new election. In any case, as is a common trend in many Western European countries, turbulent times are ahead.

Alessandro Chiaramonte is professor of political science at the University of Florence (@alechiaramonte).
Vincenzo Emanuele is a research fellow in political science at Luiss Guido Carli, Rome (@vinceman86).

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