Italy's Senate Speaker Franco Marini has began talks aimed at
seeking support for overhauling the country's election system as
the current one failed again to deliver the country from its
chronic woes of short-lived governments.
The European power witnessed the collapse of its 61st government
in 63 years since the end of World War II. The center-left cabinet
led by Prime Minister Romano Prodi was brought down late last month
after the ex-European Commission president lost a confidence vote
in the Senate.
The downfall of the 20-month-old government has brought Italy's
electoral system back to the limelight, a system widely blamed for
producing fragile and ineffective governments for years.
Taking the situation at its face value, the breakdown of Prodi's
government was caused by the defections of two small coalition
partners, which stripped him of a razor-thin majority in the
315-seat upper house.
However, a close scrutiny of the existing electoral system is
likely to show that it should probably take much of the blame.
HOW ELECTORAL SYSTEM WORKS IN ITALY
A republic with a bicameral parliamentary system, Italy has a
630-seat Chamber of Deputies, the lower house, and a 315-seat
Senate, the upper house. A government can stay in power only when
it secures confidence from both houses, which enjoy equal
A mixed electoral system was introduced in Italy beginning 1993
till 2005, allocating 75 percent of the seats under a majority
system, with the remaining one quarter given by proportional
Under the majority, or plurality, system, the party garnering
the most votes wins; under the PR, a party's number of seats in
parliament is in proportion to the percentage of votes it won in
In the parliamentary elections held on April 9-10, 2006, a
full-blown PR electoral system replaced the mixed one. Each elector
casts one vote for a closed party list, from which electors cannot
choose individual candidates.
The PR system used in 2006 also brought with it a "majority
prize". It awarded "bonus" seats to winners on a national basis in
the lower house and regionally in the Senate. Take the lower house
for example, the bonus means that a party or a coalition, obtaining
the most votes but still short of 55 percent of parliament seats,
will be given extra seats till its number of seats increases to
340, or 55 percent, out of a total of 618 seats.
WHY CURRENT ELECTORAL SYSTEM ERODES GOVERNMENT LONGEVITY
The main flaw of the current proportional representation system
is that it produces highly fragmented parliaments and unsteady
coalitions in government. For example, between 1945 and 1993 when
the PR system prevailed, Italy saw a total of 52 governments come
and go, with each cabinet lasting less than one year on average
into their five-year term.
What's striking about Italy's tempered PR system is that the
"majority prize" gives small parties a disproportional sway power.
They often demand seats as a condition for joining one coalition or
another. Eager to win, bigger coalition partners would, in all
likelihood, bow to this demand.
Consequently, smaller parties could secure parliament seats even
if they have failed to reach the 4-percent threshold. A single
party has to collect at least four percent of the vote in elections
to enter parliament.
With cobbling together a viable coalition as the top priority,
bigger coalition partners often concentrate on how to woo small
parties to jump aboard, while putting off more crucial tasks of
sorting out political differences with their smaller partners.
However, these differences often turn out to be too difficult to
bridge, presenting a daunting task for a coalition to hold itself
In the latest case, deep divides over a wide range of issues,
like foreign policy, fiscal policy and electoral reform, had long
been simmering within Prodi's ruling coalition, which brought
together parties ranging from Christian democratic centrists to
left wingers, among over 20 individual parties with seats in
The crisis which ultimately brought down Prodi's government was
triggered by the withdrawal of the Udeur party and the centrist
Liberal Democrats. The Udeur party chief and ex-Justice Minister,
Clemente Mastella, made the move after his wife was put under house
arrest and himself named in a corruption probe.
Mastella cited differences on a number of issues including
electoral reform, a proposed referendum on the current electoral
law and relations with the new Democratic Party (DP), which was
created through the merger of the Democratic Left and centrist
PROSPECTS FOR ELECTORAL SYSTEM OVERHAUL
Shortly after the downfall of Prodi's government, Italian
President Giorgio Napolitano began sounding out views on whether to
install an interim government and change the electoral law before
calling a snap election.
Politicians are equally divided on the issue. Prodi's biggest
ally, the new Democratic Party (DP), led by Rome Mayor Walter
Veltroni, wants the electoral law changed before early elections
While at the other end of the political spectrum, Silvio
Berlusconi, already twice premier and beat by Prodi narrowly in
2006, is eager for a snap election as soon as possible, which polls
projected he is probably to win, seizing on popular support after
the Prodi cabinet's demise.
Some party leaders say that while many changes have already been
made to the electoral system in the past, none of them have
succeeded in bringing an end to government instability in the
Small parties are fiercely opposed to the proposed reform, which
would favor larger parties and diminish the influential clout
enjoyed by smaller ones.
However, ordinary Italians present a more united front on this
issue. Over 600,000 people signed a petition for a referendum on
electoral reform, a demand which secured the backing from the
constitutional court on January 16.
The referendum is slated for mid-April and mid-June, during
which, according to an opinion poll released on January 21, over 75
percent of Italians would vote a "yes" to scrap the "bonus" system,
among other changes.
One possible scenario is a return to the mixed system used
from1993 to 2005, which helped create the current "bipolar" system
of broad coalitions and may be helpful in pushing the country
gradually toward a "two-party" system with two political blocs
alternating in power.
But what is certain is that a prolonged political limbo would
hurt the Eurozone’s third largest economy, as the world is bracing
for a looming global recession.
(Xinhua News Agency February 1, 2008)