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The March 2018 Parliamentary Election in Italy
A Portrait in Uncertainty

On March 4, 2018 Italian voters will go the polls to elect both chambers of its national Parliament. Many observers expect the outcome to be a hung Parliament, with no party or group of parties capable of expressing a majority and therefore supporting a government. Although uncertainty, complexity, and impenetrability are traditional tropes of Italian politics, the current situation is in some ways quite novel, in ways that non-Italians may not fully appreciate. Why is this so? 

The major reason stems from the new voting system that will be used in March. Since the beginning of this century, parliamentary elections have been regulated by five (!) different sets of electoral rules (two of which, fortunately, were never applied in an actual election). In the 2001 election (as in 1994 and 1996), 75% of parliamentary seats were assigned on the basis of first-past-the-post (plurality) districts; the remaining seats were distributed on a roughly proportional basis. At least in the single-winner districts, the “Mattarellum” (Italians are so fond of voting rules that they give them nicknames) encouraged individual parties to form multi-party coalitions, supporting common candidates, in order to be competitive. But those same coalitions were so internally disjointed that ensuing government majorities proved to be unstable and provided minor partners with disproportionate power.

In 2005 a centre-right government led by Silvio Berlusconi enacted a new voting law (“Porcellum”), based on a radically different rationale and applied in the 2006, 2008 and 2013 parliamentary elections. Voters could only choose one of many long, party-specific, multi-candidate lists, and the number of seats allotted to each party directly reflected their electoral strength. The system’s strong proportional nature was tempered by two provisions: only lists reaching a certain threshold could earn seats, and the party or coalition receiving most votes enjoyed a “premium” guaranteeing a parliamentary majority. Predictably, two major coalitions (centre-left and centre-right) emerged and collected the great majority of the votes. The system was strongly criticized because, in practice, parties “appointed” their parliamentarians, as voters had little say in determining which specific individuals got elected. Moreover, winning coalitions continued to be internally fragmented.

In the event, key features of the 2005 voting law were ultimately struck down by the Constitutional Court. The surviving system (“Consultellum”, under which no election was ever held) would have assigned seats on a purely proportional basis (which would have effectively prevented the formation of a clear parliamentary majority). These rules were in turn replaced, in 2015, by a new voting law (supported by a centre-left government led by Matteo Renzi) that featured a two-round process, 100 multi-winner districts, no provision for multi-party coalitions, and a majority premium for any party collecting at least 40% of votes in the first round. This “Italicum” regulated only the election of the Parliament’s lower house (Chamber of Deputies) and would have come into effect only after the approval of a constitutional reform that provided for the indirect election of the upper house (Senate). Since that reform was rejected by the electorate in a 2016 referendum, the Italicum was never implemented (and parts of it were also struck down as unconstitutional, thus igniting a debate: is Parliament incapable of approving a viable voting system, or is the judiciary playing politics?).

In 2017 yet another voting system (“Rosatellum”) was approved by a large majority of both centre-left and centre-right parties. (As in the case of the Porcellum, the new system was enacted just a few months before the election, thus engendering controversy.) Competition for 37% of seats (in both houses) takes place in first-past-the-post districts, and all others (except for 2% of seats allotted to voters residing abroad) are distributed on a proportional basis among relatively short, party-specific lists, as long as they achieve pre-set thresholds. Multi-party coalitions are allowed and, indeed, necessary in order to be competitive in the single-winner districts. Arguably, the new rules are specifically intended to prevent Beppe Grillo’s Movimento Cinque Stelle (Five-Star Movement, which entered Parliament for the first time in the 2013 election, upending the Italian political system’s bi-polar nature), which has always ruled out any alliance with other parties, from gaining a majority.

In the upcoming election, the incumbent centre-left coalition comprises the Partito Democratico (Democratic Party) led by Renzi and a handful of smaller parties. Its chances are hurt by a recent split within the party; some of its minor leaders joined forces with other leftist groups and founded a new party called Liberi e Uguali (Free and Equal). The centre-right coalition comprises four parties, including Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and Matteo Salvini’s Lega (League), which has dropped its “Northern” qualifier in a bid to broaden its appeal among Southern voters. The Movimento Cinque Stelle is, so to speak, a “single-party coalition”.

The centre-right coalition appears to be the strongest, enjoying the support of roughly 35% of the electorate, according to voting intention surveys; but its two major parties are almost equally popular and vying for dominance of the coalition. The Movimento Cinque Stelle is the strongest single party, with close to 25-30% of the votes. The centre-left, dominated the Partito Democratico, appears to be slightly less popular (about 25%) and is hurt by the competition on its left from Liberi e Uguali (6%).

In light of survey results and the voting system, most observers believe it’s virtually impossible for any of the three major players to earn a parliamentary majority. In fact, much analysis of outcome simulations focuses on the likelihood of alternative majorities, such as Partito Democratico + Forza Italia, or Movimento Cinque Stelle + Lega. But none of these potential post-election alliances appears to be mathematically possible. Even if they were, such alliances would continue to be plagued, as in the past, by low levels of internal cohesion.

But Italian voting intention polls have not been particularly accurate in the past (they usually identify the “winner”, but perform less well in forecasting the margins of victory), and there are many reasons to believe that they face even greater challenges with the Rosatellum. There are in all 348 first-past-the-post districts (232 in the lower house, 116 in the upper), in many of which, at least in theory, any of the major coalitions could win. Voters will use a single ballot, in which plurality voting and proportional voting are interrelated in intricate ways; each coalition’s plurality candidate can affect its proportional vote, and vice versa, which could lead to unpredictable developments. The distribution of proportional seats in the lower house is determined at the national level, but at the regional level for the Senate. The two houses also have different electorates: 18-to-24-year-olds can’t participate in the Senate election. Above all, it is highly likely that voter turnout will reach an all-time low. All these factors render pre-election polls even more unreliable than usual.

Another path to building a post-election majority involves exploiting parliamentarians’ propensity for disloyalty towards their parties. This is not as unrealistic as it sounds. In the current legislature, for example, 207 out of 630 members of the Chamber of Deputies (i.e., one-third of the total) have abandoned their initial parliamentary group membership. Parliament could decide to prohibit such “turncoat” behaviour but has consistently refrained from doing so. Yet another possible outcome is a genuinely and irreparably hung parliament, leading to new elections within a few months (perhaps after the enactment of yet another voting system).

In the meantime, the campaign is underway: platforms are being drafted, parties are choosing candidates, insults are exchanged, untenable promises are made, Italy’s European allies worry... and the show goes on.


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