Italian Electoral System
General Aspects of the Electoral System
The Parliament of the Italian Republic consists of a lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, and an upper house, the Senate, both directly elected by universal adult suffrage and with equal powers. Both houses are elected for a five-year term of office. The voting age in Italy is eighteen years for Chamber elections, and twenty-five for Senate elections. Governments must enjoy majority support in both houses of Parliament in order to remain in office.
From 1948 to 1992, members of the Chamber of Deputies were elected by proportional representation (PR) in multi-member electoral districts, except in Valle d'Aosta, represented in the Chamber by one member elected by simple majority. Senate elections were held under a system in which three-quarters of the seats were filled in single-member constituencies, provided the winning candidate received at least sixty-five percent of the constituency vote; this requirement did not apply to the Valle d'Aosta Senate seat election, which was carried out by plurality voting. Unfilled Senate seats were then proportionally distributed in each region. In practice, very few candidates reached the sixty-five percent constituency threshold; consequently, PR was used to allocate nearly all Senate seats.
The Italian proportional representation system produced highly fragmented legislatures, and short-lived, unstable coalition governments: from 1945 to 1993 there were a total of fifty-two governments, which on average lasted less than a year in office. In fact, the April 5, 1992 legislative elections - the last held under the PR system - produced a legislature in which no single party, or any combination of two parties could command an absolute majority of seats in either house of Parliament. This situation brought about a major governmental crisis, which culminated with the resignation of the President of the Republic, as it became increasingly difficult for him to find a candidate for the presidency of the Council of Ministers (as the post of prime minister is called in Italy) that could secure majority support in Parliament. Eventually, a new coalition government was formed, more than two months after the election had taken place, and after the election of a new president, which entailed further negotiations among the sixteen parties represented in the Italian legislature. However, the new government proved to be as shaky as its predecessors, and it lasted just ten months in office.
This situation stood in stark contrast with the outcome of the April 9, 1992 general election in the United Kingdom - held under the first-past-the-post system - in which the ruling Conservative Party, led by Prime Minister John Major, secured an absolute majority in the House of Commons on a plurality vote, formed a new government shortly after the election had taken place, and remained in office for the next five years, despite a seemingly endless succession of adverse developments.
The sharp contrast between the swiftness with which a new government was formed in Great Britain in 1992 and the prolonged Italian governmental crisis did not go unnoticed by public opinion in Italy. Supporters of electoral reform, led by Mario Segni - at the time a leading member of the now-defunct Christian Democratic Party (DC) - gathered enough signatures to force a referendum on the issue, which was held on April 18, 1993. Seventy-seven percent of the Italian electorate took part in the vote, in which a proposal to repeal the sixty-five percent constituency threshold for Senate elections was overwhelmingly approved, with 82.7% of the valid vote.
While unfavorable comparisons with Britain may have played a part in the outcome of the referendum, a major factor in favor of change was an ongoing, large-scale investigation of corruption at all levels of government in Italy - the so-called Operation Clean Hands - whose findings completely discredited the ruling class, and led to the eventual demise of both the Christian Democratic Party (DC) - the country's dominant political force since the end of World War II - and its allies, most notably the Italian Socialist Party (PSI).
Although the referendum did not address the Chamber of Deputies electoral system - Italian referenda may only be called to repeal an existing law or a clause thereof - the outcome of the vote was interpreted as a call for sweeping changes in the electoral laws, in answer to which a new electoral system was adopted by Parliament in August 1993. This system provided for the election by plurality voting in single-member constituencies of seventy-five percent of the seats in both the Senate and the Chamber. The remaining twenty-five percent of the seats in each house would be filled by proportional representation, in order to compensate parties that won few or no constituency seats. However, the proportional representation system adopted for the election of one-quarter of the Chamber of Deputies is very different from the mechanism used to allocate proportional seats in the Senate, which was retained in the reformed electoral law.
The Quest for Stability and the Return to Proportional Representation
When Italy adopted its new electoral system in 1993, there were high hopes - both within the country and beyond its frontiers - that the new parliamentary election procedures would lead to a simplified political system, which would in turn produce stable, effective, long-lasting governments. So far, these have proved to be highly elusive goals: Italy has had eight governments over the course of the past eleven years, which on average have lasted a little more than a year in office. Although the electoral system has led to the rise of two broad electoral cartels on the right and the left, which have alternated in power, the party system remains highly fragmented; at the same time, the electoral alliances have proved to be rather fragile, compromising governmental stability in the process.
While many Italians believe the retention of a PR component has led to persistent party fragmentation, the problem appears to originate in the internal agreements reached by coalition partners in order to allocate single-member college nominations: smaller parties usually demand and secure safe seats, as a condition for joining one coalition or the other; rather than risk losing the election, the larger coalition partners usually bow to these demands, outrageous as they may be sometimes. Consequently, small parties often secure parliamentary representation even when they have failed to reach the four percent PR threshold - as was the case in the 2001 election with the Lega Nord, the CCD-CDU, the Italian Democratic Socialists, the Federation of Greens, the Italian Communists and the New Italian Socialist Party, all of which are represented in Parliament, despite polling less than four percent of the Chamber proportional vote. This persistent phenomenon has been referred to as the proportionalization of the first-past-the-post system.
Although the electoral coalitions appear to give Italian voters the clear choices they were supposedly denied in the days of DC-dominated governments under full-blown proportional representation, these alliances have been largely geared to win elections first, and sort out policy differences among coalition partners later. However, these policy differences often prove too difficult or impossible to overcome, which makes it difficult for the cartels to hold governments (or even themselves) together. In this context, it should not come as a surprise that under the so-called "Second Republic", not a single elected government in Italy has managed to complete its five-year term in office so far.
As of mid-to-late 2005, it appeared unlikely that the Italian electoral system would undergo any major changes in the immediate future. Successive referendum proposals in 1999 and 2000, which sought to abolish the election by proportional representation of one-quarter of the Chamber seats, were invalidated when voter turnout failed to reach the required quorum of fifty percent of the registered voters plus one - although an overwhelming majority of the voters who took part in the referenda supported the proposals, reflecting a growing sense of frustration with an electoral system that had failed to deliver the promise of stable governments.
However, as findings from opinion polls taken after the House of Freedoms' poor showing in the April 2005 regional elections suggested the center-left Unione (Union) would score a significant victory as well in the upcoming 2006 legislative elections, and in all likelihood secure very large majorities in both houses of Parliament under the existing electoral system, in late 2005 the Berlusconi government - until then strongly opposed to bringing back proportional representation - did a 180-degree turn and pushed through Parliament legislation to re-introduce PR with a majority prize for elections to the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies.
The New Electoral Systems
For elections to the Chamber of Deputies, each elector casts one vote for a party list. These lists are closed, so electors cannot choose individual candidates in or alter the order of such lists. 617 out of 630 Chamber seats are distributed at the national level by the largest remainder method of PR among: coalitions that obtain at least ten percent of the vote and which include at least one party that obtains two percent of the vote or more; political parties that obtain at least four percent of the vote, running individually or as part of a coalition that obtains less than ten percent of the vote; and parties representing recognized linguistic minorities that obtain at least twenty percent of the vote in their corresponding regions. Chamber seats awarded to a coalition are in turn proportionally allocated among constituent parties that have obtained at least two percent of the vote; however, this requirement is waived for the coalition party with the largest number of votes among those polling fewer than two percent.
The new Chamber system provides for a nationwide majority prize: if the coalition that obtains a majority of votes initially receives less than fifty-five percent of the seats filled in Italy proper (340 out of 618), its number of seats is increased to 340. In this case the remaining 277 seats - Valle d'Aosta continues to elect one deputy in a single-member constituency - are apportioned among the other qualifying coalitions and individual parties.
Chamber seats in Italy proper are subsequently distributed among twenty-six multi-member districts - the same districts used under the previous electoral system - following a set of complex procedures designed to insure that seats are filled in all districts without changing the nationwide distribution of seats or the apportionment of seats among districts.
Italian citizens residing abroad elect the remaining twelve deputies. These seats, which are grouped in four regions - Europe (including the entire Russian Federation and all of Turkey), South America, North and Central America, and the rest of the world - are also distributed according to the largest remainder method of PR.
For elections to the Senate, electors vote for a closed party list in eighteen of Italy's twenty regions. Senate seats in these regions are apportioned by the largest remainder method of PR among coalitions that receive at least twenty percent of the vote and which include at least one party that receives three percent of the vote or more, as well as parties that receive at least eight percent of the vote, running individually or within a coalition that receives less than twenty percent of the vote. Senate seats awarded to a coalition are in turn proportionally allocated among constituent parties that have received at least three percent of the vote.
The new Senate system also features a regional majority prize: if the coalition that obtains a majority of votes in a given region is initially allocated less than fifty-five percent of the seats filled in the region, its number of seats is increased to no less than fifty-five percent of the region's total, and the remaining seats are distributed among the other qualifying coalitions and individual parties. However, no regional majority prize is awarded in Molise, which elects only two senators.
Valle d'Aosta continues to elect one senator in a single-member constituency, and Trentino-Alto Adige continues using the previous Senate electoral system, in compliance with a 1991 law that established six single-member Senate seats in the region, equally distributed between Italian-speaking Trento (Trent) province and German-speaking Bolzano (Südtirol) province. Finally, six senators are chosen by Italian citizens residing abroad; these seats are filled in the same manner as the corresponding seats in the Chamber of Deputies.
It had been widely anticipated that in the event of an Unione victory under the new PR systems, the resulting center-left majorities in both houses of Parliament would be considerably smaller than under the previous systems, and the leader of the Unione, former Prime Minister (and former President of the European Commission) Romano Prodi had promised to undo the changes if the center-left returned to power in this year's elections. However, the elections - held on April 9-10, 2006 - delivered a completely unexpected outcome. In the Senate vote, the upper house members chosen by Italian expatriates gave the center-left a lead of just two seats over the center-right; in the Chamber of Deputies election, Prodi prevailed by the narrowest of margins - 0.07% of all valid ballots - which nonetheless was sufficient for the center-left to receive the majority prize of 340 seats in the lower house of Parliament.
Thus, in an ironic twist of events, the electoral reforms introduced by Berlusconi's government have allowed the center-left to secure a narrow Senate majority as well as a substantial majority in the Chamber of Deputies, the latter much larger than their extremely close popular vote lead, and - judging from past election results - possibly larger than the majority they might have attained with the same amount of votes under the old electoral system.