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.