As noted here before, Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and his Forza Italia are looking to introduce some major changes to Italian political institutions. Some, such as a return to proportional representation (only this time, unlike before 1993, with a threshold of 4%), would take effect in time for general elections due in April. Others, which include some regional devolution and enhancement to the prime minister’s authority, include constitutional amendments that would require a referendum and hence would take effect later.
Angus Reid has a detailed overview.
Reid summarizes the current electoral system:
Currently, three-quarters of the seats in the lower house are decided in uninominal racesâ€”i.e. one candidate is elected out of each electoral districtâ€”while the remaining quarter is filled through proportional representation. The amendment that created the present system was passed in 1993, and has produced the most stable governments in Italyâ€™s post-war history.
A major impetus for the change to the mixed system more than a decade ago was the publicâ€™s disenchantment with habitually ineffectual governments. When Italy first became a republic following World War II in 1946, its constitution stipulated a full proportional representation electoral system. In the 47 years during which the system was in effect, there were 51 changes of government, as no party was ever able to cobble a viable mandate.
When the new mixed-member system was put in place, it was Berlusconi who was the immediate beneficiary, as the majoritarian nature of Italy’s unique and extremely complicated variant of mixed-member rules manufactured a majority for the alliance of parties supporting him. In the 1996 election, the electoral system again facilitated an alternation when Berlusconi’s allies lost to an alliance of the left. And the electoral system once again helped generate alternation in 2001, back to Berlusconi’s alliance. Three alternations in three elections under the new rules.
The majoritarian nature of the current system is clearly demonstrated by the fact that Berlusconi’s House of Liberty alliance won almost three fifths of the lower-house seats in 2001, on less than a majority of the votes (around 45% of votes cast for candidates in the FPTP races and about 48% cast for party lists associated with Berlusconi).
Given Italy’s history before 1993 of elections with such party fragmentation that electoral mandates and alternation were never feasible–instead post-election and inter-election bargaining determined the making and breaking of governments–a system that facilitated two blocs in the electorate was a salutary development for Italy.
However, Berlusconi has had a bit of a change of heart. From Angus Reid again:
The Union of Christian and Centre-Democrats (UDC), a faction in Berlusconiâ€™s right-wing governing coalition, were actually the first to suggest reverting to a full proportional representation electoral system. [...] Reports suggests that it was only after a meeting with market researchersâ€”who tested numerous statistical models and concluded that a proportional representation system is the governing coalitionâ€™s sole chance at a majority government in the next electionâ€”that Berlusconi became an advocate for the change.
Now, I have to say that last sentence contains a key logical flaw. The current system manufactures majorities for the largest alliance in the electorate, even if it is just a plurality of votes. So how could PR provide Berlusconi with a majority that the mixed-member majoritarian system would not? Clearly there is more here than meets the eyes of Angus Reid.
I suspect they mean plurality, not majority. That is, because the right is fairly unified and the left is currently anything but, PR will render Berlusconi’s alliance the largest in parliament, thus able to cobble together a coalition after the elections. [Note, this was written before it was clear to me that the new system put in place for the 2006 elections was not, in fact, PR. See some of the more recent posts in the Italy subdomain (click on the country name at the top of this post, which will take you to the most recent posts, and then scroll down).]
The current [i.e. 1994-2001] system, on the other hand, could produce a left-wing government. Why? Because it allows multiple parties to coordinate on single-member distirct nominations without having to present a common proportional list. That this is indeed the motivation is hinted at by this report about one leftist leader’s reaction, from Agenzia Giornalistica Italia [my emphasis]:
(AGI) – Rome, Italy, Nov 14 – DS party secretary Piero Fassino today described the centre-right’s approval of the electoral and devolution reform as “a desperate counteroffensive, and a dangerous one at that: their recklessness in nothing new, we knew they’d of anything to keep a hold of power, even changing the electoral system alone, barring any broader consensus with the opposition; with elections months away”. According to Fassino the centre-right coalition “has paved the way to a squalid barter, which would have the constitution reduced to a mere item of trade. [The government coalition] feels the drastic its slump in confidence and credibility and has changed the electoral system in order to avoid losing. The word at their headquarters runs more or less as follows: “if we don’t win, nobody must win. Samson and the Philistines must die together; they are an army on the retreat applying scorched earth”. The current electoral system “isn’t perfect – Fassino stressed – and that’s clear to us too: it doesn’t help to strengthen coalitions and grants parties an excess of power in the process of designating candidates”. However “it does have its positive aspects: its has made bipolar politics possible and has engendered alternation, and the constituency system has made for a more direct link between candidates and the electorate”. The reformed system, according to Fassino, will lead to “lesser cohesion and greater oligarchy, less stability and greater fragmentation, less bipolar politics and greater political ambiguity: that exactly the opposite of what the country needs. [...] We believe there are sound grounds for its unconstitutionality; we have made that point in all areas of governance, foremost in parliament; but that is an issue that warrants being judged” by the Constitutional Court.
As I mentioned, there are other reforms Berlusconi has in mind. A-R again:
This month, Berlusconi also pushed through a substantive constitutional overhaul of the authority of a number of government branches and offices. While some presidential privileges were eliminated, the prime ministerâ€™s power was expanded to include the ability to hire and fire ministers at his exclusive discretion, as well as the prerogative to dissolve parliament. Greater regional autonomy over education, health, and law and order was also granted. Following months of acrimonious debate, senators voted to adopt the motion.