Italian electoral law
The Italian Electoral law of 2015, officially Law 6 May 2015, no. 52, colloquially known by the nickname Italicum, given to it in 2014 by the Democratic Party secretary and subsequently head of government Matteo Renzi, who was its main proponent (until the end of January 2015 with the support of Forza Italia's leader Silvio Berlusconi) provides for a two-round system based on party-list proportional representation, corrected by a majority bonus and a 3% election threshold. Candidates run for election in 100 multi-member constituencies with open lists, except for a single candidate chosen by each party who is the first to be elected.
The law, which will come into force on 1 July 2016, regulates the election of the Chamber of Deputies, replacing the previous electoral law of 2005, modified by the Constitutional Court in December 2013 after judging it partly unconstitutional. By the time the law will come into force, the upper house is expected to have become a body representing regions, with greatly reduced powers, thus making a reform of its electoral system unnecessary.
- 1 History
- 2 Main characteristics and operation
- 3 Discussion
- 4 Previous systems
- 5 References
- 6 External links
The electoral law passed by the centre-right government in 2005, immediately received widespread criticism: among other things, critics called into question the use of long closed lists of candidates (which gave party executives great power in deciding the composition of the Parliament), and the regional mechanism of allocation of seats in the Senate (which made the existence of a "clear winner" of the elections less likely).
After two unsuccessful attempts at repealing the law by referendum, in the 2013 general election the law failed to produce a majority in the Senate: as a consequence, the only way to form a government was by means of a grand coalition between left wing and right wing parties that had harshly fought each other in the election. The resulting Letta Cabinet was perceived by many people as the second "unelected government" in a row (after the Monti Cabinet).
While the coalition agreed that a new electoral law was needed, it failed to agree on a specific model. The Democratic Party executive and prime minister Enrico Letta even went as far as requesting that his party vote against a parliamentary initiative by fellow democrat Roberto Giachetti to restore the previous Mattarella law. This was probably done out of concern that the grand coalition supporting his government would not hold.
On 4 December 2013, the Constitutional Court judged the electoral law of 2005 partly unconstitutional: in particular, its unlimited majority bonus was repealed. This made an electoral reform ever more urgent, since proportional representation without majoritarian correction is thought to be incompatible with the competitive party system of Italy.
A few days after, on 8 December 2013, Matteo Renzi became the new leader of the Democratic Party. In his victory speech, he vowed to change the electoral law against the risk of "stabilized grand coalitions". Renzi's initiative ultimately led to him taking the place of Letta as the prime minister. Finally, Renzi made a deal with Silvio Berlusconi for a set of institutional reforms, including a new majority-assuring law based on a two-round system, conceived to make the event of a forced Grand Coalition impossible.
The bill still faced harsh opposition, even by members of the proposing parties: however it was approved by the Chamber of Deputies on 12 March 2014 and, in an amended form, by the Senate on 27 January 2015 with the support of a large majority.
After the election of Sergio Mattarella as the new President of Italy on 31 January 2015, Berlusconi withdrew his support to the bill. In order for it to receive its final approval by the Chamber of Deputies, the government decided to link it to a confidence vote (hinting at a snap election in case of a negative outcome). The bill was finally approved on 4 May 2015 and signed by President Mattarella two days later.
Main characteristics and operation
The Italicum system regulates the attribution of 617 of the 630 seats of the Chamber of Deputies, excluding 12 seats attributed to representatives of Italians living abroad, and one seat for the Aosta Valley region. An uncommon feature of this system is that it is majority assuring, thanks to a jackpot that is assigned to the winning party, possibly after a second electoral round.
The territory of Italy is divided into 100 constituencies electing between 3 and 9 deputies depending on their size. For each constituency, the parties designate a list of candidates: "head of list" candidates can run in up to 10 constituencies, while other candidates are limited to a single constituency. Gender balance is promoted by requiring that, in each region, head of lists of either sex for the same party should not exceed 60% of the total; additionally, candidates in all lists must be in a sequence alternating by gender.
At the first round, electors receive a ballot allowing them to vote for a single party and for its head of list candidate (pre-printed on the ballot), and are given the option to express up to two additional preference votes for other candidates of that party, by writing their name next to the party symbol. If two preference votes are expressed, they must be of a different sex: otherwise, the second preference is discarded.
Only parties passing a 3% minimum threshold in the first round are assigned seats. If the party receiving the plurality of the votes passes a 40% threshold, it is attributed a minimum of 340 seats (54%). The remaining 277 seats are allocated to the other parties in a proportional fashion, and no second round takes place.
If no party has been able to pass the 40% threshold, a second round takes place two weeks after the first one: this time electors receive a ballot where they are allowed to choose between the two parties that received most votes in the first round. The party winning the second round is attributed 340 seats, and the remaining 277 seats are allocated to the other parties in a proportional fashion, according to the results of the first round.
The proportional allocation of seats follows the largest remainder method. Each party receives a certain number of seats depending on its national result: these seats are then projected onto the 100 constituencies and attributed to the candidates of that constituency, starting from the head of list and then according to the number of preference votes.
An amendment, known as "Erasmus amendment", makes sure Italian students experiencing abroad the Erasmus programme can vote.
Several events have contributed to the development of the electoral law into the current system. We list a few, without any pretense of being exhaustive:
- the collapse of the consociative party system that dominated Italian politics between 1946 and 1993, which was replaced by a new (sometimes harshly) competitive system, making pure party-list proportional representation undesirable and arguably demanding a strong majoritarian correction
- the mediocre performance of electoral coalitions in the period 1994–2013: the two electoral laws of this period (based first on an additional member system, then on a majority bonus for the winning coalition) gave origin to electoral coalitions which were subject to dissolution once in power
- the presence, in the Renzi Cabinet, of small centrist parties, with a uniform distribution on the national territory, which were understandably hostile to solutions based on single-member constituencies, like a first-past-the-post system
- the good performance of the system used to elect Italian mayors and city councils which, like the Italicum, is majority-assuring and employs a runoff election (but unlike the Italicum gives the majority bonus to an electoral coalition and not to a single party).
Roberto D'Alimonte (LUISS), who was the main scholar proposing the new system, said that "the Italicum is a good instrument that represents a point of satisfactory equilibrium between governability and representativeness. However [...] good government [...] depends mostly on the men and women who use it". He also made a comparison with the 2015 United Kingdom general election, stating that "the Italicum's advantage is indeed that the winner will be assigned 340 seats and the losers will have to divide the remaining 278 seats. [...] The point is that the Italicum is a majority-assuring system, such that it ensures that there will be an undisputed winner, but unlike the British system, it is not a winner-takes-all system. In fact, the winner does not take the entire pot, but only 54 percent".
Former president of Italy Giorgio Napolitano, who was a key player in pushing Italian parties into reforming the electoral system, remarked that "this law certainly hasn't been written in a month, it took more than one year, there have been many discussions, there has been a committee of scholars who opened the way, therefore I believe this has been an important accomplishment".
Likewise, scholars have been divided on the electoral reform. Augusto Barbera (emeritus professor at the University of Bologna and one of the most prominent experts of Italian constitutional law) was unhappy with the possibility for a candidate to run in more than one constituency, and with the low 3% election threshold, but otherwise praised the law. He said that the system does not introduce presidentialism, but stregthens the powers of the prime minister, which is "the characteristic of all functioning parliamentary systems (United Kingdom, German chancellorship, Spanish premiership)".
Tommaso Frosini (Suor Orsola Benincasa University of Naples) stated that "it is to the lawmaker's credit to have been able to make a synthesis of the two principles" of governability and proportionality.
According to Pasquale Pasquino (New York University), the Italicum "should be preferred over pure majoritarian systems" where "the electoral law decimates not only small parties, but even parties going close to a 20% of the people's votes".
Among critics, Gianfranco Pasquino (University of Bologna) wrote that "the Italicum is a bad reform with a single merit: the runoff giving real power to electors. As for the rest, the party bonus is wrong, as well as multiple candidatures and the low threshold for the access to the Parliament".
Constitutional law expert Michele Ainis (Roma Tre University) was also critical of the reform. According to him "the Italicum determines a direct election of the prime minister, giving him a turnkey majority", therefore introducing a constitutional reform by means of an ordinary law.
Among foreign press organs, the Spanish newspaper El Pais commented that "the important thing is that the law approved by the Chamber of Deputies obtains stability and governablity, nevertheless respecting the decision coming from the polls as much as possible"
The previous electoral law had a series of thresholds to encourage parties to form coalitions. It replaced an Additional Member electoral system which had been introduced in the 1990s. The attempt to change the law with the referendum failed and was the Constitutional Court, the judgment no. 1 of 2014, to eliminate various unconstitutional elements that were part of the law.
The block voting system is nationwide-based for the House, and regional-based for the Senate. Italy is divided into a certain number of districts for the Chamber of Deputies, whereas each Region elects its senators. Each district is assigned a number of seats proportionate to its total of the population of Italy. The winning coalition receives at least 55% of the seats on national level in the House, and on regional level in the Senate, while the remaining seats are proportionally divided between minority parties. For the House, seats won by each party are then allocated at district level to decide the elected candidates. Candidates on the lists are ranked in order of priority, so if a party wins for example ten seats, the first ten candidates on its list receive seats in parliament.
The law officially recognized coalitions of parties: to be part of a coalition, a party must sign its official program and indicate its support for the coalition's candidate to the prime-ministership.
Chamber of Deputies
For the Chamber of Deputies, Italy is divided into 26 constituencies: Lombardy has three constituencies, Piedmont, Veneto, Lazio, Campania, and Sicily each have two, and all other regions have one. These constituencies jointly elect 617 MPs. Additionally one MP is elected from the Aosta Valley and 12 are elected by a constituency consisting of Italians living abroad. Seats are allocated among the parties that pass thresholds of the total vote on a national basis:
- Minimum 10% for a coalition. If this requirement is not met, the 4% limit for single parties apply.
- Minimum 4% for any party not in a coalition.
- Minimum 2% for any party in a coalition, except that the first party below 2% in a coalition does receive seats.
Also, parties representing regional linguistic minorities obtain seats if they receive at least 20% of the ballots in their constituency.
In order to guarantee a working majority, a coalition or party which obtains a plurality of the vote, but less than 340 seats, is assigned additional seats to reach that number, corresponding roughly to a 54% majority.
Inside each coalition, seats are divided between parties with a Hare method, and consequently assigned to each constituency to elect single candidates.
Senate of the Republic
For the Senate, the constituencies correspond to the 20 regions of Italy, with 6 senators allocated for Italians living abroad. The electoral system is very similar to the one for the lower house, but is in many ways transferred to regional basis. The thresholds are also different, and applied on aregional basis:
- Minimum 20% for a coalition.
- Minimum 8% for any party not in a coalition.
- Minimum 3% for any party in a coalition (there is no exception for the first party in a coalition below this threshold, unlike the lower house).
The coalition that wins a plurality in a region is automatically given 55% of the region's seats, if it has not reached that percentage already. As this mechanism is region-based, however, and opposing parties or coalitions may benefit from it in different regions, it guarantees no clear majority for any block in the Senate, unlike the national super-assignment system in the Chamber of Deputies.
The new electoral law has come under wide criticism from the centre-left opposition since its introduction for a series of reasons:
- The system is considered by its opposers to be less stable than the previous additional member system. The region-based system in the upper house is not guaranteed to produce a clear majority, and may pave the way for governmental crises. In reality, it's not clear how previous AM system could itself eliminate this problem. Despite this criticism, Berlusconi's coalition won a clear majority after 2008 elections, both in House and Senate.
- Large Party Bias
- It was widely alleged in the press at the time of its introduction, that the new system had been custom-designed by Silvio Berlusconi's government to give advantage to his House of Freedoms coalition in the 2006 elections, by eliminating seats for the numerous small parties on the Left that might not reach the 2% threshold. In the event however, these small parties formed alliances to reach the threshold, and the Center-Left won a surprise victory despite the system.
- It has been alleged that Italian parties have retained too much power in the First Republic, screening the choices citizens had in elections; this electoral law would maintain fixed electoral lists, where voters can only express a preference for a list but not for a specific candidate. This can be used by parties to all but guarantee re-election to unpopular but powerful figures, who would be weaker in a first past the post electoral system (a system never used in Italy in its pure form after WWI).
- Adaptation to Gallups
- In Italian elections the left-wing tends to fare better in direct confrontation than in proportional voting, a sign there are voters who trust left-wing candidates but right-wing political parties, for reasons that can be debated. It is alleged that the centre-right majority in the Parliament undertook this reform to boost their chances in the upcoming elections of 2006 (they indeed lost by a very small margin).
- No agreement with the opposition
- The law was passed by the majority against the opinion of the opposition. Many felt that the "rules of the game" should be agreed upon by everybody, and not imposed by one side.
Between 1991 and 1993, resulting from two referendums and legislation, Italian electoral law was altered substantially. Electoral law in Italy is determined by Parliament, not by the constitution. This, along with the concurrent collapse of the Italian party system, marks the transition between the First and Second Italian Republics.
The nearly pure proportional representation system of the First Republic had resulted not only in party fragmentation and therefore governmental instability, but also insulation of the parties from the electorate and civil society. This was known in Italian as partitocrazia, in contrast to democracy, and resulted in corruption and pork-barrel politics. The Italian constitution allows, with substantial hurdles, abrogative referendums, enabling citizens to delete laws or parts of laws passed by Parliament (with exceptions).
A reform movement known as COREL (Committee to Promote Referendums on Elections), led by maverick DC-member Mario Segni, proposed three referendums, one of which was allowed by the Constitutional Court (at that time packed with members of the PSI and hostile to the movement). The June 1991 referendum therefore asked voters if they wanted to reduce the number of preferences, from three or four to one, in the Chamber of Deputies, to reduce the abuse of the open-list system by party elites and ensure accurate delegation of parliamentary seats to candidates popular with voters. With 62.5% of the Italian electorate voting, the referendum passed with 95% of those voting in favor. This was seen as a vote against the partitocrazia, which had campaigned against the referendum.
Emboldened by their victory in 1991, and encouraged by the unfolding Mani pulite scandals and the substantial loss of votes for the traditional parties in the 1992 general elections, the reformers pushed forward with another referendum, abolishing the proportional representation system of the Italian Senate, implicitly supporting a plurality system that would theoretically force parties to come together around two ideological poles, thereby providing governmental stability. This referendum was held in April 1993, and passed with the support of 80% of those voting. This caused the Amato government to collapse three days later. Municipal elections were held in June 1993, further illustrating the lack of legitimacy the sitting parliament held. The President of Italy, Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, thereupon appointed a technocratic government, led by former head of the Bank of Italy, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, with the sole task of writing a new electoral law.
As it was under no constitutional obligation to enact a purely majoritarian system (nor were they under obligation to promulgate a new electoral law for the Chamber of Deputies), and cognizant of its declining popular support, the sitting parliament enacted a new electoral law in August 1993 that provided for single-member districts while reflecting their own interests. Despite this, many of them would be voted out of office in the national election in March 1994.
The electoral law
The national elections used an Additional Member System, which in Italy was a mixed system, with 75% of seats allocated using a First Past the Post electoral system and 25% using a proportional method, with one round of voting. The Senate and the Chamber of Deputies did not differ in the way they allocated the proportional seats, both using the D'Hondt method of allocating seats.
The Senate included 315 elected members, of whom:
- 232 are directly elected in single-member districts.
- 83 are elected by regional proportional representation.
- a small, variable number of senators-for-life include former presidents of the Republic and several other persons appointed for life by a president of the Republic (no more than 5), according to special constitutional provisions (scientists, writers, artists, social workers, politicians, tycoons).
The Senate was elected on a single ballot. All those votes not contributing to a winning candidate were thrown into a regional pool, where the seats were allocated proportionally. There was no electoral threshold for the Senate.
The Italian Chamber of Deputies had 630 members, of whom
- 475 are directly elected in single member districts.
- 155 are elected by regional proportional representation.
The Chamber of Deputies used two ballots. The first ballot elected that district's member, on a purely plurality basis. The second ballot, in which only parties and party-lists were listed, was used to determine the proportional seats, allocated within one single national constituency, with a 4% minimum threshold for party representation.
A complicated mechanism known as scorporo, a previously unknown word in Italian politics, was used to tabulate PR votes. The number of votes cast for candidates coming in second place on the first ballot (SMD) would be subtracted from the number of votes earned on the second ballot (PR) by the party of the winning candidate in the first ballot. This would be repeated for each single-member district. This was developed – against the overwhelming opinion expressed in the referendums – to dampen the effect of the first-past-the-post system, which it was feared that it might promote the prevalence of one political party, especially parties that were strong in one geographical area.
The law also introduced a closed list system for the party lists on the second ballot, i.e., excluding voters from the decision as to which members of that party would enter parliament, thereby guaranteeing reelection of party leaders whose popular support was rapidly declining (new elections were to be held once the new electoral law was fully implemented). Ironically, that is what allowed Mario Segni, the leader of the reform movement, to enter parliament on the proportional ballot after the March 1994, elections, having broken with his party in March 1993, and then reunited with one of its shattered remnants that December.
The system did not accomplish the goals desired by the voters. The first parliament elected after the electoral reform produced Silvio Berlusconi's first government, which lasted eight months. Small parties still enter parliament and form unstable coalitions. On the other hand, political parties in Italy seem to be coalescing around two poles, if imperfectly so, and governments have lasted much longer, at least by Italian standards. On that level, the electoral reform can be seen as an improvement over the electoral law prior to it, even if Italy has now returned to a party-list system.
The 1946–1993 electoral system
Between 1946 and 1993, Italy used an electoral system that was a nearly pure proportional representation system, which was subject to two insignificant thresholds:
- that a party needed to achieve 300,000 votes at the national level;
- Italy was divided into 32 electoral regions (circoscrizioni), of unequal size, which were awarded a certain number of seats in Parliament based on population (e.g., Rome received more than 50). Within these regions, seats were divided proportionally; in order to become a member of parliament, a party member needed to be directly elected within one of these regions – approximately 60,000 votes. This system allocated 90% of the seats in both houses of parliament. The votes that did not go to a winning candidate were then thrown into one national electoral district, which was then divided proportionally and used to determine the remaining 10%, thereby going to candidates not directly elected.
Furthermore, voters were able to list their preferences for candidates on a party list, in order to prevent the parties from exploiting the power they acquired from being able to write their party lists. In practice, however, parties were able to manipulate these numbers to that preferred members, i.e., members loyal to one faction within a party, could enter parliament.
As neither of these thresholds was difficult to achieve, this system naturally benefitted the small parties. This was exacerbated by the fact that the Lower House has 630 seats. Because of the design of the electoral law did not provide for any mechanism to exclude small parties (indeed, it seemed designed to encourage them) or provide any incentives to avoid splintering, by the 1970s the Italian party system had become completely fragmented, with 17 parties represented in parliament in contrast to the eight represented in 1947. This resulted in highly unstable coalition governments (the average length was nine months) and political turbulence—and because voters had little control over which candidates entered parliament, political parties were insulated from the wishes of civil society. Relations between political elites and the masses therefore became clientelistic; voter behavior and politics in general became a contest as to which party could secure more pork-barrel investment for a specific region. It also allowed politicians to become corrupt.
- (Italian) LEGGE 6 maggio 2015, n. 52.
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