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Italy's electoral system cripples government stability
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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.




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 powers.


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 representation (PR).


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 elections.


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.




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 together.


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 parliament.


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 Daisy parties.




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 are held.


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 country.


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)

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