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. [↩]