Napolitano was elected on April 20 with the votes of the Democratic Party (PD), Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Freedom Party and Mario Monti’s Civic Choice. Despite having earlier ruled out the possibility of a second term, Napolitano changed his mind after Franco Marini and Romano Prodi failed to get elected due to a dramatic split in the PD that prompted its head, Pier Luigi Bersani, and the party’s entire leadership to resign.
One of the faculties that makes the Italian presidency potentially more than ceremonial is the authority to dissolve parliament when a government can’t be formed. (This power does not exist in the final phase of a president’s term, but becomes active again once Napolitano starts his second term today.)
Does this mean a grand coalition (i.e. a Berlusconi-backed government)? Or will there be a new elections (leading to who knows what?)?
Lots of talk today about either a grand coalition or, more commonly, a new election within months.
I am not so sure. With the caveat that I really do not pretend to know what the various actors want, I want to put out the following propositions:
1. The vote was a rejection of Berlusconi if it was anything. Sure, he was not the incumbent, but his alliance had won the last election with a large plurality and wound up below 30% in this one. That’s staggering.
2. It was certainly not an endorsement of Bersani, who apparently just squeaked by to get the plurality–and hence a majority of seats in the Chamber of Deputies–but whose alliance likewise is below 30%.
3. The Senate is divided, with Bersani’s alliance apparently second to Berlusconi’s, but close having a narrow plurality (see Bancki’s comment, below).
4. Notwithstanding the first point, Berlusconi came from far behind in the polls and just missed pulling off a massive upset (in more ways than one).
Given all of this, why not a Bersani-led government that would be a minority government in the Senate?
It seems as if the center-left would be reluctant to go to a new election, for fear that the very small shift of votes needed to lose its Chamber majority just might happen in a new election. The wild card in this scenario is, of course, Grillo and his 5-Star Movement. (Mario Monti’s list does not hold the balance in the Senate.) On the one hand, Grillo sees himself as the single star (pun intended) of this election, and might think he could do better in a new one. On the other hand, presumably the risk of being responsible for a Berlusconi comeback would make him hesitate to jump back into a new election campaign. Maybe he could be enticed to support a Bersani-led government on confidence and supply?
Before and after electoral reforms: the political system in search of stability and governability. Part 1
The following is a guest post by Gianluca Passarelli, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Rome, La Sapienza
“Everything must change in order to change anything.” The very famous sentence pronounced by one of the protagonists in the novel Il Gattopardo was addressed to his interlocutor, scared by the potential changes brought by the process of Italy unification in 19th century. It seems that that phrase well represents political and institutional Italian damnation. In fact, many politicians, parties and institutional actors have all acted as Tancredi–who said the famous phrase above mentioned–in order to contain, reject, modify or just ignore the push toward a much more accountable and renewed political system.
After five elections and two electoral reforms, Italy and its so-called Second Republic, symbolically born in 1993/1994, are going to the polls without any guarantee of a politically well defined government after the vote. The 2013 Italian general election presents the same problems that in the past induced both (some) political parties and the citizens to promote a reform.
The dichotomy between (in)stability of governments v. representativeness of social cleavages and political parties still remain unsolved, as well as the lack of a defined and clear overlap between political and electoral borders. Electoral competition is not based on a set of alternative coalitions or parties, but rather the electoral offerings frequently vary. As a consequence the process of accountability between the politicians and MPs to the voters is not yet accomplished. (more…)
Today and tomorrow Italians (a few of them anyway) vote in a referendum to change (again) the country’s legislative electoral system.
As I understand it (and more informed readers, as always, are invited to correct me in the comments) the main proposal is to strike from the current electoral law the provision that awards to the largest pre-electoral coalition a guaranteed majority (nationally in the Chamber, region-by-region in the Senate). Instead, if the measure passed, the majoritarian bonus would go to the largest party list.
Give the nature of the Italian party system, this would be quite a radical change. It would generate extreme disproportionality and likely not, as its supporters claim, turn Italy into a “sistema bipartitico.” (Click the country name in the “Planted in” line above for previous discussions here.)
There are actually three related questions–one for each house of the legislature and one to ban candidates from running on a party’s (closed) list in more than one district. The full text (in Italian) is at the link above.
The measure is unlikely to pass, due to low turnout. The vote coincides with the second round of local elections.
(Thanks to Filippo, in an e-mail, for the reminder.)
I have now had a chance to review the performance of the Italian electoral systems (Chamber of Deputies and Senate) in the recent election, compared with the 2006 election. These two elections had very different results–alternations in government from Right to Left and back to Right being the most notable–but were held under the same rules. Thus they offer a good opportunity to begin to isolate the effects of the rules from other factors.
As I have noted many times, the Italian electoral system put in place by the previous government of Silvio Berlusconi shortly before the 2006 election is fundamentally majoritarian. For instance, in the Chamber, it rewards the alliance with the plurality of the nationwide votes a qualified majority of 55% of the seats. The Senate rules are similar, but with a crucial distinction: the majoritarian bonus is calculated on the basis of several regions rather than nationally. (The Senate also has various lifetime senators, which is hardly a parenthetical point, given that it was in the Senate that the last government fell.)
Nearly all the news accounts of the last two Italian elections refer erroneously to the electoral system as proportional. Fundamentally, it is not. However, there is a key proportional component: Once a given alliance is determined to have the plurality and thus minimally 55% of the seats, the allocation of those seats is proportional to the parties comprising the alliance, and the remaining seats are similarly divided proportionally among parties within losing alliances (as well as any parties not running in an alliance but qualifying for seats).
So, we have in Italy since 2006 a true mixed electoral system. Not a mixed-member system,1 such as the one in place from 1994 to 2001. But a mix of principles inasmuch as pre-election alliances are rewarded with a bonus (an unmistakably majoritarian feature) while small parties are also rewarded for surpassing a quite low threshold (an obvious feature of proportional systems).
Which element of this odd mix will prevail in terms of the shape of the party system? Will we see high fragmentation because of the proportional element (again, calculated only after the “bonus”), or low fragmentation because of the majoritarian element?
The answer is, it depends. On which election we look at. The 2006 result was indeed fragmented, which presumably is what caused so many observers to comment on the electoral system as if though it was proportional, full stop. But the 2008 election produced an outcome that is far more consistent with the overarching majoritarian logic of the system.
I will use here the effective number of competitors (parties or blocs).
For the Chamber, the effective number of competitors was as follows (given as votes/seats):
2006, by bloc: 2.03/1.98
2008, by bloc: 2.72/2.19
2006, by party: 5.48/4.91
2008, by party: 3.74/3.07
Now isn’t that interesting! The effective number of competitors when measured by alliances went up in 2008, while when measured by parties it went down–a lot. The change in the parties is obviously much greater than the change in the blocs. Some parties (notably the Union of the Centre and the Rainbow Left) chose to go it alone, and not join a pre-election bloc in 2008.
The really big change in the number of parties reflects a substantial reduction in the internal fragmentation of each bloc. Here are the effective number of vote-winning parties within each bloc, again in the chamber:
2006, right: 3.17
2006, left: 2.35
2008, right: 1.49
2008, left: 1.26
By number of parties, the left had nine parties that won at least one seat in 2006 and only two in 2008, whereas the right had seven in 2006 and only three in 2008. Measured by the percentage of the alliance’s total vote that was concentrated on the largest party, the change is more dramatic:
2006, right: 47.8
2006, left: 63.5
2008, right: 79.9
2008: left: 88.4
It is really hard to overstate just how much this electoral system is majoritarian. It just looked less majoritarian in 2006 than it would in 2008. The majoritarian nature of the system was simply somewhat masked in 2006 by the presence of many small parties on the left that had their seats shares boosted by the fact that they were part of the alliance that earned the majoritarian bonus. For instance, four parties had from 2.0 to 2.5% of the national vote in 2006 yet an advantage ratio of around 1.2. There are not many electoral systems–majoritarian or proportional–that will give such a large bonus to such small parties.
In the Senate, the impact of the system is less dramatic, because of the regional calculation of both the majoritarian bonus by bloc and the intra-bloc proportionality. However, in the Senate, too, the outcome is much more majoritarian than it was in 2006. In the previous election, the votes result was so close that there was actually split outcome between the two houses: whereas the left alliance won the vote in the Chamber, 49.7% to 49.5%, the right alliance won the votes in the Senate, 50.2% to 49.0%. Thus, whereas the left benefited nationally from the bonus provision in the Chamber, the regional bonuses did not all accrue to the same alliance in the Senate. Still, the right won the Senate seats in 2006, 153 to 148 (before inclusion of the unelected Senators).
With a more decisive result in both houses this time, the winning alliance will have around 55% of the seats in each house.
Finally, we would expect the Senate to be more majoritarian (or “less proportional,” if you prefer) than the House, due to the regional allocation. Yet that did not appear to be the case in the close elections of 2006, as noted above. In 2008, it is clear. The votes hardly differ between the two houses, but the seat result shows more concentration on the two large blocs in the Senate result than in the Chamber, precisely as we expect from a majoritarian system.
Chamber, 2008, votes percent, seats percent, advantage ratio
Notice the significantly worse performance in the Senate than in the Chamber of the Union of the Centre, the one significant party not to join either major pre-election bloc. Most of the difference was picked up in the Senate by the Left, the second largest bloc nationally.
Italy’s current electoral system is one of the strangest and most complex to be found among the older established democracies. But in its second run, it produced a decisive result in both houses and the closest thing Italy has seen yet to the vaunted “two-party system.” Despite its warts, is this the electoral system Italy has been waiting for? Stay tuned.
Meanwhile, the discussion at the previous planting on Italy continues…
Source note: I used primarily Adam Carr. However, I discovered a significant error in his reporting of the 2006 Senate result. So I turned to the Italian Ministry of the Interior election archive. There were minor discrepancies between Carr and the results there for 2008 and for the 2006 Chamber, but not enough to change the calculations I reported above (and had already performed before catching the 2006 Senate error in Carr).
That is, two tiers, one nominal/plurality and the other list/PR, but also majoritarian; that system was also mis-labeled (mixed-member) proportional in many sources. Although there was some “vote linkage” (partially compensating from the list tier those parties that did not perform well in the nominal tier) that made the system less majortarian than it might otherwise have been, it was much more MMM than MMP. [↩]
The Italy block here at F&V contains several previous plantings on the electoral system. This election will be the second running of the system put in place just in time for the 2005 election: Majoritarian by pre-election bloc, proportional within blocs.
Lists are being registered for Italy’s election, taking place about a month from now. There will be some interesting symbols on the ballot, Reuters reports, complete with slideshow:
From the “No Garbage” party, to the “Don’t row against the tide” party, to “Dr. Cirillo’s party of existentialist impotents”, there will be something for everyone in Italy’s general election in April.
Nearly 180 symbols of political parties, movements, lists, sub-lists, sub-parties and a myriad of other groupings were presented to the Interior Ministry by Sunday’s deadline.
Amid the usual forest of symbols with shields and crosses, flags, hammers and sickles, doves, suns, trees and seas, there are some symbols that raise eyebrows more than normal.
The symbol of the “No Monnezza” list takes its name from the Neapolitan slang for “no garbage,” and is a sub list of an “animal rights” party of the southern Campania region.
The region has been in the news for all the wrong reasons lately. Its governor will stand trial in May in connection with the garbage crisis around the city of Naples, where tens of thousands of tonnes of rubbish have piled up in the streets.
There is the “Holy Roman Empire” list, which describes itself as “Liberal-Catholic”. The symbol sports the picture of its founder, Mirella Cece, who started the group 21 years ago.
Meanwhile, there is a controversy about a “proud lifelong Fascist” on the list headed by the former and likely future Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi.
Italy’s prime minister, Romani Prodi, was ousted by a vote of no confidence in the Senate yesterday. It was a day of high political drama, precipitated by the defection from his center-left coalition of a critical partner earlier in the week, and marked by one senator being spat upon, and then collapsing, after announcing he was staying with the government rather than his party, and with champaign being sprayed around the opposition benches.1
The (mostly ceremonial) president now must consult with the leaders of the various parties and determine whether a government can be reconstructed out of the current parliament, or whether to dissolve parliament and call for early elections. Former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, smelling blood, wants quick elections. But it is not his decision.
Prodi has a solid majority in the Chamber of Deputies, and retains its confidence. However, Italy is one of the very rare cases of a parliamentary system in which the cabinet must maintain confidence in two chambers.
Knowing little more than what I have summarized so far, and the details of the current electoral system (which I will get to), I would expect a caretaker government to be formed to pass a new electoral system before new elections. One of the issues that has divided the coalition is precisely the electoral system. However, now that the threat of a new election looms,a divided coalition may not want to go to elections under the current rules. The president (who again, is mostly ceremonial) is known to prefer that an electoral reform be completed before new elections. On the other hand, of course, the electoral reforms being talked about would reduce the representation of smaller parties, of which there are many in parliament currently, especially in Prodi’s alliance.2
Under the system that was adopted just in time for the last elections (April, 2006) by Silvio Berlusconi’s right-wing coalition, the electoral rules are strongly majoritarian. Of course, the media always blame proportional representation for Italy’s short-duration governments.3 However, few systems are actually more majoritarian than what Italy currently has: Any pre-electoral bloc of parties that can obtain a plurality of votes over any other party or bloc is guaranteed at least 55% of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies. Only then does the proportional element come in, as this majority bloc of seats is divided proportionally among the parties in the alliance that won the vote plurality. (And the remaining seats are similarly divided among the rest of the blocs and their component parties.) The Senate allocation formula is essentially the same, but allocation is carried out on a regional basis, rather than nationally. The regional element in the second chamber, as well as the presence of some lifetime senators, is what results in Prodi’s majority being narrower in the senate than in the chamber (158 seats won out of 301 in 2006, compared to 156 for the opposition).
The current system was put in place by Berlusconi and his allies in the expectation that it would be impossible for the center-left to unite, and thus the right could win a large majority of parliament even if its aggregate support declined from the previous election. It almost worked, as the election was razor-thin in the votes (49.7% to 49.5%). But with virtually all parties having combined into one of two big blocs, and with the center-left being just ahead in votes, it was the center-left and Prodi that came out ahead.
Before this week, Prodi had already survived one crisis in the Senate, when he resigned in response to losing a vote on NATO troop deployments (and which was not, in fact, a confidence vote). He was able to come back from that bit of brinkmanship stronger than he had been before it.4 This time seems quite different.
A proportional representation system–an actual PR system–could make Italy much more governable than the impostor the country currently has, especially if it had a 3-5% threshold.5 To the extent that small parties in the governing coalition have been a problem under the current system–and they certainly have been–it is worth noting that these parties are boosted by the current electoral system’s non-proportional provisions. For instance, the second largest party in Prodi’s alliance, the Communist Refoundation, won only 5.7% of the votes in the 2006 election. Yet it has 6.5% of the seats in parliament. Every other party in the alliance has less than 3% of the votes, yet each is over-represented. Collectively, the seven parties other than the largest (L’Ulivo) and Refoundation, have 10.6% of the votes, yet 12.9% of the seats.6 The party that left the coalition this week, the Popolari-UDEUR, won only 1.4% of the vote (both houses) and has 10 seats in the Chamber and only 3 in the Senate. Given the narrower margin in the Senate, that was a pivotal share. Under a PR system, especially with a modest threshold, these small parties would have to combine with others or be out of parliament. Then there is the likely fact that a PR system would mean some parties would leave their current bloc and be available to support either major party and its allies in government. That would be an asset, not a flaw, of a new PR system in Italy.
Will the center-left parties have to contest an election under the current system, which would almost certainly then play out the way Berlusconi had intended the 2006 election to play out? Or can they agree on a different system being passed by a temporary government, thereby delaying the election and perhaps snatching victory from the jaws of this week’s big defeat?
Extensive clips were played in DW-TV’s Journal program yesterday, seen via Link TV. [↩]
Although Prodi’s own party is much bigger within his own alliance than is Berlusconi’s is in his alliance, fragmentation after the leading party is much deeper, both in absolute numbers, and in ideology, in the center-left. Based on Chamber representation, the center-right alliance has three parties consisting of 49.8%, 25.3%, and 13.9% of the bloc’s total seats. The center-left, on the other hand, has a leading party with 64.9% of the bloc’s seats, another with 11.8% (the Communist Refoundation) and then four other parties with around four to five percent of the seats each. See results at Adam Carr. [↩]
A plausible case in the past, but the fact that Italy’s electoral system has not been predominantly proportional since 1993 would seem to cast doubt on this claim now. [↩]
These points about the electoral system and the previous government crisis are elaborated down the page in previous plantings, if you first click Italy in the “planted in” line at the top of this post. [↩]
Italy’s old pre-1990s PR system had almost no threshold. Even so, an arguably bigger factor in short-duration postwar governments was the absence of a pole around which to form a government not led by the Christian Democrats, due to the Cold War divisions and the large Communist Party. Internal fragmentation of the Christian Democrats also played a big role–many governments were brought down by “snipers” inside the party, as did secret voting in parliament and very powerful parliamentary committees, many of them chaired by parties other than the leading government parties. In other words, Italian instability has long been caused by factors other than PR. [↩]
These stats refer to Chamber votes and seats. Even though it was the Senate in which the government lost its votes, the regional allocation and lifetime senators make votes-seats analysis in that house a bit more complex. It is complex enough as it is! The patterns are broadly similar. And any reform likely would move both houses in a similar direction. [↩]
Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi says that Italy’s electoral system is a “false problem.” In an interview on RAI, Berlusconi indicated his opposition to either the “German” (MMP) or “French” (two-round majority-plurality) models of electoral reform. In fact, the only thing he would advocate changing is the way in which the majoritarian bonus (premio di maggioranza) to the largest alliance is calculated in the Senate. Currently, the bonus* is calculated region-by-region. Berlusconi advocates calculating it nationally, as is done in the Chamber of Deputies.
And he is not modest about his accomplishment in having introduced the current system:
Tornare al sistema tedesco Ã¨ buttare allâ€™aria il bipolarismo introdotto in Italia anche grazie a me e alla mia forza politica… [To turn to the German system would be to throw to the wind the bipolarity introduced to Italy thanks to me and my political force...--my trans.]
* A guarantee of a minimum 55% of the seats to the plurality alliance, with those seats split proportionally among parties within the alliance; the remaining maximum of 45% of seats go to any other alliances, in proportion to their votes (and, again, within the alliances, proportionate to the component parties’ votes).
Romano Prodi’s governing coalition has won a confidence vote in the Senate (and is assured of winning shortly in the Chamber), culminating a week-long “crisis” when he tendered his resignation as Prime Minister after losing a vote in the Senate on his foreign policy. The vote was 162-157. Prodi won the support of two Senators who defected from the opposition alliance, including one Christian Democrat, Marco Fillini, who had been a deputy prime minister in a former government headed by Silvio Berlusconi. Prodi also won the support of one of the life senators, former Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti (the last PM from the once predominant Christian Democratic party), who had abstained in the government’s defeat last week.
In last week’s vote, only 136 Senators voted in favor and 159 against.* (See the BBC’s graphic on the seat distribution, between and within alliances, after the last election.)
So the new government is not quite the same as the old. It has an additional party and the new coalition guidelines explicitly centralize authority to speak for the government in the hands of the Prime Minister. The government’s previous platform commitment to legalize civil unions for same-sex couples has been dropped to appease the Christian Democratic defectors who have propped up the government.
The communist senators who helped defeat the government last week have been brought back into the fold with a worse deal (for them) than they had before. Certainly, they did not anticipate that their expression of opposition to Italy’s role in Afghanistan on what was neither an announced confidence vote nor a supply bill would lead to the cabinet’s resignation. They certainly did not want a new election, or a return to power by Berlusconi, and now some of their social-policy preferences have been thwarted without their gaining their preferred change in foreign policy. So much for “tail wagging dog” in a coalition government. In this case, the dog clearly showed who gets to do the wagging.
On the issue of the government’s foreign policy, meanwhile, Berlusconi has announced that he will throw the government a lifeline (or should that be, the dog a bone?) the next time a measure comes up to reauthorize the Afghanistan mission, for the sake of Italy’s alliance commitments.** Notwithstanding numerous media reports that claim the Prodi government remains “weak,” it is obvious that the opposition leader recognizes the opposite.
As often is the case in parliamentary systems, Prodi was able to use the (threat of) resignation to buttress his own position. He has emerged a clear winner from last week’s “defeat.”
* As reported by Agence France Presse, 21 February. Link not available.
When is a non-binding vote on the government’s conduct of a war a crisis for that government? When the system is parliamentary!
After losing, by a two-vote margin, a vote in the Senate on a non-binding resolution on its military presence in Afghanistan, the Italian cabinet of the center-left alliance headed by Roman Prodi has submitted its resignation. Under the Italian constitution, the “mostly ceremonial” President is now conducting talks aimed at determining whether to call new elections or whether a new government can be formed with support from the current parliament. The latter is much more likely, for reasons developed below.
This incident is a reminder of why, as I noted back in May, the parties care who the president is, even though the Italian presidency is not a particularly powerful position. After a razor-thin election for parliament that happened to coincide with the end of the outgoing president’s term, several votes in the electoral college (made up primarily of the newly elected parliament, but also of regional delegates) were required before the left’s candidate, Giorgio Napolitano, was elected.
It is after a “cabinet crisis” (the resignation of a cabinet upon its loss on a vote it considers a matter of confidence) that the president has some discretion. Napolitano is expected to ask Prodi (or perhaps another leader on the left) to form a new coalition, rather than to call new elections.
The ruling alliance would like to change the electoral system before any new election, and so its component parties are likely to agree on a new governing formula, rather than prolong a crisis and force the president to call new elections. While in Japan earlier this month (and promising the more assertive foreign policy that his government just lost a vote on), Foreign Minister Massimo D’Alema appeared to advocate a return to a mixed-member system of some form, perhaps with a 5% threshold.
Remember, the current Italian electoral system is not proportional representation. Don’t let the media tell you it is! Italy’s last election under PR was in 1992. A mixed-member majoritarian system was implemented in 1994, but in the run-up to the 2006 elections, the right-wing government of Silvio Berlusconi changed the electoral system to an all-list, but non-PR system. The new system guarantees that the pre-election alliance of parties with a plurality of votes will have a comfortable majority in the lower house, and indeed Prodi’s coalition can still count on its lower-house majority. Berlusconi had “engineered” the system with the intention of giving his alliance a continued parliamentary majority, despite declining popularity, against a more divided left. Instead, a united left narrowly beat Berlusconi’s alliance and benefited from the Berlusconi-engineered “bonus” in the new electoral system.
Despite the government’s strong lower-house majority, Italy’s Senate matters for government formation and duration to a greater degree than upper houses in most other bicameral parliamentary systems. The Senate’s electoral system, while very similar, calculates its representation bonuses on a regionalized basis, rather than nationally as in the Chamber of Deputies. The aggregate Senate seat result was much closer, making any majority inherently less stable.
Given the danger of further intra-alliance troubles in the future in the closely divided Senate, the left leaders are seeking to woo some centrist parties that contested the last election as part of Berlusconi’s alliance. If they would defect, a new center-left government would be at lesser risk of defeat from a few renegade MPs. BBC Radio reported this morning that speculation centers on a small Christian Democratic party.
The vote for a new president of Italy is underway. As in most parliamentary systems that are not also monarchies, the head of state is a president, but not one who is popularly elected. In Italy, an electoral college made up of the two houses of parliament and representatives of regional governments–just over 1,000 electors in all–chooses the president. (A similar electoral college exists in Germany, while in many other parliamentary republics, parliament itself elects the president.)
The process is currently deadlocked, as a result of the two-thihrds requirement in initial voting and the close divide in the recent parliamentary elections between Italy’s two main political blocs. As the BBC notes, the Italian president is “basically a figurehead,” which, of course, leads one to ask, why do the parties care enough to be deadlocked?
Of course, the answer is in the key adverb: mostly a figurehead. There is little the president in Italy–or other parliamentary systems, such as Germany, Israel, the Czech Republic*, Greece, etc.–can do without the approval of parliament or the government (cabinet and prime minister) that is itself accountable to parliament. However, it is not as if there is absolutely zero discretion in these presidencies. Typically, they have the formal authority to designate who will be given the first crack at forming a government after an election or a vote of no confidence, and a small degree of discretion in deciding when a new election will be held (i.e. to dissolve parliament after a government has been ousted on a confidence vote, or when a stable government cannot be formed).
Most of the time the situations in which this discretion could be exercised constitutionally, there is no opportunity to do so politically. That is, there usually is a clear majority (even if it consists of a coalition of several parties) that alone has the possibility of forming a viable government. Likewise, usually it is clear when there is not such a majority, or when that majority has lost the confidence of the voters, and thus it is time for an early election.
It is in those rare times when such situations are not obvious that the “reserved powers” of the presidency can become important. And that is where Italy is, at least potentially, today. There is no doubt that the left will form the next government. But there is a lot of doubt that said government will prove stable, and there could be a decision point down the road over whether to have an early election or to designate someone within the current parliament to try to form a new government without an early election.
It is precisely in the ambiguous spaces that the presidency may be more than a figurehead. And so the parties care who the president is. In recent months we have seen presidents exercise power in somewhat controversial means in Germany and Israel, despite those presidencies being mostly figureheads.
The Italian electoral college takes three ballots in which a two-thirds majority is needed. If no candidate has obtained that threshold by then, the majority prevails. Many parliamentary systems have these kinds of procedures for their head of state, aimed at securing a broadly acceptable choice, but ultimately having a means to prevent the default being no one is elected. (Compare the very similar rule in Iraq‘s new constitution.)
UPDATE, 10 May: Giorgio Napolitano was elected President by 543 votes out of 1,009. Napolitano was the candidate of incoming prime minister Romano Prodi. The electoral method, discussed above, practically ensured that the bicameral majority would prevail, despite the formal rule that the electoral college make a first effort to reach consensus with two thirds. Now the process of formally forming Prodi’s government will move forward very quickly.
Mr Berlusconi’s government had pushed through an electoral reform last year which brought back full proportional representation.
Let’s get this straight. When an electoral system allows a bloc of parties to join together and take a guaranteed minimum of 55% of the seats–even if the alliance has won less than a majority of the votes–it is not proportional representation!
It is not that pre-election coalitions do not occur in clearly PR systems. They do. (Think of the UIA and Kurdish fronts in Iraq, each of which contains several component parties; there are various examples in Israel and other pure PR systems.) And it is not that majorities are never manufactured in PR systems. It does not happen often, but it happens in some cases, and the leading bloc in this case had very close to 50% of the votes anyway.
But the Italian system, v. 2006, provides very powerful incentives for large pre-election coalitions, because–especially in the lower house, where the bonus is calculated nationwide–it gives a very high premium for having the plurality of votes.
It is not a plurality system by any conventional definition. But it is just as clearly not PR.
I take it that the provision that called for deducting from a bloc’s total any votes won by component parties that failed to reach 3% was not operative in the final version of the law. (This possibility was alluded to by Federico in the comments to an earlier post.) In fact, there are parties within each alliance with less than 3% of the vote but with seats.
In the Chamber, the center-left bloc of Prodi has 220 of its 340 seats held by L’Ulivo, and seven other parties having from 4 (Svp) to 41 (Rifondazione comunista) seats each. Svp had only 0.48% of the vote.
Five parties contributed votes to the left’s total share, but won no seats. The largest of these was the Partito Pansionati, with 0.88%. The total vote won by these unrepresented parties on the left was just 1.54%. I assume there is a districting arrangement that I had not previously been aware of, since some parties with representation are smaller than others without.
In the center-right bloc of Berlusconi, Forza Italia has 137 of the bloc’s 277 seats. Four other parties have from 4 (Christian Democrat) to 71 (Alleanze Nazionale) seats each. Seven parties have no seats and combined they had 1.6%.
In the Senate, where the 55% provision for the leading blocs applies not nationally (as it does in the Chamber), but within regional districts, the center-left squeaked by, 158 seats to 156. The Senate looks even more fragmented than the Chamber (presumably due to the regional districting).
If by my laws you walk, and my commands you keep, and observe them,
then I will give-forth your rains in their set-time,
so that the earth gives-forth its yield
and the trees of the field give-forth their fruit.
--Vayikra 26: 3-4