Italy’s upcoming election: another parliamentary stalemate in the making?

In less than a week Italy will be holding a general election three years ahead of schedule, but before I explain how the upcoming vote may lead to another gridlock, I believe an introduction is in order. My name is Manuel Alvarez-Rivera and I’m the webmaster of Election Resources on the Internet, where I cover elections and electoral systems around the world, mainly (but by no means exclusively) in Europe; I also write about the same topics at the Global Economy Matters (GEM) blog with fellow AFOE authors Edward Hugh and Claus Vistesen. I would like to take a moment to thank the AFOE team for inviting me as a guest poster, all the more so since the ocassion has a special significance to me: my collaboration on GEM with Edward was the outgrowth of his reply to an e-mail I sent to the editors of this blog two years ago, regarding Italy’s closely fought election.

As it happens, two years later Italy is back to the polls, following the collapse of Romano Prodi’s center-left coalition government earlier this year, and the last opinion polls published in March showed a consistent lead for the new, center-right People of Freedom Party (PdL) headed by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, which – in coalition with the Northern League (LN) and the Movement for Autonomy (MpA) – appeared set to capture an overall majority of seats in the Chamber of Deputies under the country’s 2005 proportional representation with majority prize electoral law.

But there’s a catch: in order to remain in office, governments in Italy must command a majority in both houses of the Italian Parliament – the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate – and in the latter, it is far from certain that Berlusconi’s coalition will attain an absolute majority. The problem arises from the fact that while in Chamber elections the majority prize (approximately 55% of the lower house seats) goes to the nationwide popular vote winner, Senate elections are carried out on a regional basis: nationwide vote totals have no bearing whatsoever on the composition of the upper house, and majority prizes – comprising at least 55% of the upper house seats for a given region – are awarded to the winner in each of the country’s seventeen regions where the system is in place (the majority prize clause does not apply in three small regions with special arrangements, nor for seats set aside for Italian expatriates, as detailed on my website’s Elections to the Italian Parliament page).

The difference between the upper and lower house seat allocation rules is crucial because – barring a landslide victory by either PdL-LN-MpA or its major challenger, the center-left Democratic Party (PD) – Italy of Values (IdV) coalition – it’s very unlikely either group will capture the majority prize in every region, all the more so since Italy has very strong regional voting patterns: generally speaking, the north-northeast (and Sicily in the south) are center-right strongholds, central Italy (including Emilia-Romagna) is staunchly left-of-center, while peninsular southern Italy (including Lazio, where Rome is located) and Sardinia have swung back and forth; in the 2006 election, Senate majority prizes won by the center-right and center-left coalitions cancelled each other out, and the two coalitions won the same number of seats they would have received had the election been held under straight proportionality (and had voters cast their ballots in the same manner).

Moreover, under the Senate electoral system, coalitions (and parties running alone) have to obtain at least eight percent of the vote in order to participate in the distribution of seats for a given region. While the 8% barrier presents no problem for the two major coalitions, both of which stand well above the threshold throughout practically the entire country, it could have an adverse effect on two smaller groups that appear likely to secure parliamentary representation: the Rainbow Left (SA) – which brings together the Federation of Greens and Italy’s two Communist parties (PRC and PdCI) – and the right-of-center Union of Christian Democrats and Centre Democrats (UDC), previously allied with Berlusconi but running on its own in this election.

Findings from the last opinion polls indicated control of the Senate is likely to be decided in five to seven swing regions where the difference between PdL and PD stands at less than two percent of the vote. On top of that, the distribution of seats in these regions may well hinge on whether the Rainbow Left and particularly UDC overcome the regional eight percent barrier. Under the Senate electoral system, once the winning slate automatically gets the majority prize share of seats, the remaining mandates are apportioned among qualifying losers.

For example, in the ten-seat Calabria region – the “toe” of boot-shaped peninsular Italy – the winner will get six seats, and the remaining four seats will be distributed among losing tickets. If only the two major coalitions cross the threshold, then the runner-up gets all four minority seats, but if both the Rainbow Left and UDC qualify for the distribution of seats, it may receive as little as two, with the minor groups capturing one seat each. In this regard, the electoral system is distinctly disproportional, since a few percentage points could cost as much as four seats to either of the two major groups.

At this juncture, the impact of the eight percent threshold in the Senate election outcome remains highly uncertain. UDC won 6.8% of the nationwide vote in 2006 and secured 21 Senate seats, but as part of Berlusconi’s coalition the party needed to win only three percent of the vote at the regional level. While UDC easily overcame that lower threshold, it stood above eight percent of the vote in only three regions – Marche, Puglia and Sicily (winning just 8.1% in the first two); this was of no consequence back then, but could be critical this time around. Earlier polls suggested UDC would improve upon its 2006 showing, but tactical voting appeals from the two major coalitions appear to have eroded its support, and in subsequent polls the party came up slightly below its 2006 share of the vote – which could reduce UDC to a handful of Senate seats in this year’s election. Meanwhile, the Rainbow Left – whose numbers were also down from previous surveys – faces a similar dilemma, although it may not be as severely affected as UDC because its vote tends to be more concentrated in central Italy.

In any event, it appears Silvio Berlusconi may need to prevail in all the swing regions in order to secure a narrow Senate majority; otherwise, the PdL coalition would in all likelihood fall short of an overall majority in the upper house. Of course, the irony of such an outcome is that if it comes to pass, Berlusconi will have no one to blame but himself. The current electoral law was imposed by Berlusconi’s government prior to the 2006 general election, in an eleventh-hour attempt to (unsuccessfully) forestall a center-left victory; in fact, the switch back to proportional representation was a major u-turn for Berlusconi – up to that point, he had been a staunch defender of the mixed (three-quarters first-past-the-post, one quarter proportional) electoral system in place since 1993 – and the cabinet minister who authored the new electoral law subsequently referred to it as a “porcata” (which translates somewhat blandly as a “dirty trick”). Moreover, following Romano Prodi’s fall earlier this year, Berlusconi blocked all attempts to reform the electoral law: he wanted an early election under the existing system, and he got it – but it may not work out the way he anticipated.

That said, it wouldn’t be the first time that one of Berlusconi’s electoral schemes backfires. On the contrary, this seems to be a recurring pattern going all the way back to 1994, when Berlusconi sought to appease mutually hostile coalition partners by forming two different electoral alliances (one in the north, another in the south). To be sure, Berlusconi won the election, but once in power he proved unable to bridge the differences among his bickering allies, and consequently his first government collapsed after only seven months in office. More recently, the 2005 electoral law not only failed to live up to the center-right’s expectations on its 2006 debut, but ended up having precisely the opposite effect by granting the center-left a comfortable Chamber majority on the basis of a paper-thin popular vote lead. As if that were not enough, the center-left captured a majority of the expatriate seats established by Berlusconi’s government, gaining in the process a one-vote Senate majority.

In sum, while Berlusconi appears likely to prevail in Italy’s upcoming vote, he may nonetheless find himself facing a predicament not unlike that of his predecessor, depending upon a fragile Senate majority sustained by fickle minor parties (possibly including UDC, which could come into play if PdL and its allies fall short of an outright upper house majority). In light of recent developments, such a prospect bodes ill for the long-term stability of the government that may emerge from the election.

4 thoughts on “Italy’s upcoming election: another parliamentary stalemate in the making?

  1. Then, the obvious question. If that happens what are the consequences? Single member constituencies?

  2. Before the election was called there were proposals to establish a Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) electoral system along the lines of Germany, where one-half of the parliamentary seats are filled in single-member constituencies, and the remaining half comes from party lists, with the latter allocated on a top-up basis so that the overall distribution of seats is proportionate to the parties’ share of the vote.

    In the English-speaking world, New Zealand has a similar electoral system, as do Scotland and Wales for their devolved legislatures.

    A referendum on the electoral system was originally scheduled for next month, but the early election has forced its postponement until next year at the earliest.

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