Understanding Italy's electoral system: It's complicated

By Dr John Hajek
Professor of Italian Studies, University of Melbourne

Italy is holding general elections on March 4th 2018 and, as usual, it’s complicated.

In order to understand how Italian politics and elections work today, you first have to understand the post-WW2 political development and history of Italy.

The birth of a Republic

After the excesses of fascism under Mussolini and trauma of WW2, Italy transformed from a Monarchy to a Republic and opted for a bicameral parliamentary system. It has a Chamber of Deputies (with 630 elected members) and Senate (315 elected members).

The system is designed to temper excessive control by any one leader: the prime minister who leads the government needs the support of both houses.

While most of the power resides with the Parliament, Italy maintains a President of the Republic who is elected by a special electoral college for 7 years. The role is in practice mostly ceremonial but still has important responsibilities such as naming the prime minister and ensuring the constitution is abided by.

Instability becomes the new normal

For decades after WW2, Italy was renowned amongst Western democracies for the instability of its governments. The voting system was for a long time strictly proportional, and given significant voter fragmentation across many parties, no single party from the 1950s on could achieve an electoral majority in their own right.

Between 1946 and significant political reform in 1994 there were more than 60 governments. The daily news was typically focussed on political crisis, teetering governments and the complicated establishment of unstable multiparty coalitions.

The best-known coalition from that era is perhaps the so-called Pentapartito – a complex five party coalition that extended from the centre-left Socialist Party to the conservative Liberal Party.  Yet during all of this time there was a kind of stability: the now defunct Christian Democrats dominated – they were in all governments – and much effort was made to keep national government out of the hands of the Italian Communist Party (PCI).

Crisis in parliament was matched by crisis in the streets -  and the late 1960s to the 1980s were challenging years with political street violence and terrorism. This includes the kidnapping and assassination of ex-Prime Minister Aldo Moro in 1978 by the Red Brigades, a far-left terrorist organisation

The Second Italian Republic

By the early 1990s, fed up with political turmoil and a corruption scandal known to Italians as Tangentopoli, Italians voted for significant reform in 1993, leading to what is considered to be the start of the second Italian Republic in 1994.

A new voting system was introduced to reduce instability and old parties such as the Christian Democrats and the Socialist Party were largely washed away, tainted by the past and the strong desire by voters to change the old system.

A wave of untested parliamentarians was elected and a process of significant political realignment began. As a result, the Italian Communist Party also largely dissolved through a series of transformations and splits between hard-liners and a larger more social democratic base. The party’s largest successor can now be identified with the ruling centre-left Democratic Party.

The Rise of Berlusconi

Many other parties have since come and gone but perhaps the biggest surprise of 1994 was the rise of right wing Forza Italia – headed by controversial Italian tycoon, Silvio Berlusconi, with his own media empire to back him.

Berlusconi came to power as head of a large, unwieldly right-wing alliance whose electoral success surprised many. Since 1994, he has been Prime Minister in four governments, serving a post-WW2 record of nine years in total. While written off many times since then, Berlusconi is once again recognised as a forced to be reckoned with in the upcoming elections.

A New Electoral System

In the pursuit of more stable governments, Italy has enacted a number of electoral reforms since the start of its second republic. The latest of these was a major reform passed in 2017, creating a new voting system known colloquially as the Rosatellum bis. The March 2018 election will thus be the first under a new mixed-member proportional system where just over 1/3 of parliamentarians are selected on a first-past-the-post basis while the remaining 2/3 are allocated proportionally.

This new system has made it an even greater challenge to predict the likely winner. Voters will have three main choices:

  • A centre-left coalition led by Democratic Party (DP, headed by ex-PM Matteo Renzi);
  • A centre-right alliance with controversial 81-year old tycoon Silvio Berlusconi at its helm; and
  • The eurosceptic 5 Star Movement (5SM) led by 31-year old Luigi di Maio (but closely monitored by its founder, Beppe Grillo who for legal reasons cannot enter parliament).

At this stage, it’s largely an open race with polls giving a slight edge to Berlusconi’s centre-right alliance.

Image: Voting card for the Senate for Italians living abroad for Italy’s General Election. Source: Getty Images


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