Explaining the electoral law

James Walston explains the ins and outs of Italy's controversial electoral law, which was not amended in time for the February general elections even though all parties agreed that it was unjust and should be changed.

The original article was published on Walston's blog "Italian Politics with Walston" on 30 December 2012

For the last year all the political parties and leaders have agreed loudly that the 2005 electoral law was unjust and inappropriate and should be changed. The man who guided it through Parliament, the Northern League’s Roberto Calderoli, called it a porcata (pig’s mess) back then and Giovanni Sartori dubbed with a dog-Latin tag Porcellum.

Every month or so, President Napolitano reminded Parliament and the parties that time was passing and the old law was still in place. They answered with a ritual “it’ll be ready in a fortnight”. The parties and parliamentary committees discussed nerdy and arcane distinctions between single member constituencies, double ballots and preference votes… but in the end came to no conclusions and the law is unchanged.

This should surprise no one as the Porcellum gives complete power to party leaders to decide who gets elected and it also gives a hefty premium to the largest party or coalition. Silvio Berlusconi and his PdL wanted to keep control of the candidates and Pierluigi Bersani and the PD were not averse to taking 55% of the seats with only 35% of the vote, a quite probable result.

So as the election campaign gets under way, it’s worth looking at the rules and the playing field that they are competing on.

Italy has perfect bicameralism – its two houses have equal power as in the US but very different from the UK or France, say. In order to govern, a coalition needs a majority in the Senate and the Chamber.

The Chamber has 630 deputies so the majority is 316. There are twenty six multi-member constituencies to elect 617 deputies. The other 13 come from the Valle d’Aosta single member constituency and 12 representing Italians abroad. The party or coalition that wins a relative majority automatically takes a premium of 55% on the 617 equal to 340 seats. In 2006, Prodi’s Unione won 0.1% (or c. 70,000) more than Berlusconi’s coalition and took the premium.

There are thresholds in order to qualify of seats. A coalition must poll 10% with each single component party taking 2%. A party standing by itself must poll 4%.

There seems to be an incentive to put together the broadest possible coalition in order to maximise the chances of being the biggest group and winning the premium. This is what Prodi did in 2006 but the coalition was too broad and unravelled after only two years. In 2007, Walter Veltroni gambled that a single and united party would stand a better chance; he founded the Democratic Party which was the main cause of the Prodi coalition falling apart. Berlusconi took up the challenge and founded his single party, the Popolo delle Libertà by uniting his own Forza Italia and the post-fascist Alleanza Nazionale. The PdL swept the board in the 2008 elections but it too started showing cracks after two years in practice losing its majority in 2011.

The candidates who actually become deputies are those at the top of the list, down to the percentage the party polled. In simple terms, in a constituency with 40 deputies, a party which polls 30% will have the first 12 on their list elected. The order of the list is decided by the party, not the voters.

Today it is highly likely that Bersani’s PD in coalition with Nichi Vendola’s left wing SEL (Sinistra, Ecologia, Libertà – Left, Ecology, Freedom) will win the relative majority in the Chamber.

The Senate is much less certain.

There are 315 seats up for election and the system works on the same principle as the Chamber and gives a premium of 55% to the winning list or coalition but at the regional rather than national level.

The threshold is double the Chamber’s; 20% for a coalition and 4% for each single component and 8% for parties outside a coalition. This is why Monti’s supporters have decided to present a single list in the Senate as singly they would not reach the 8% threshold.

There are 20 regions. The traditional “red” regions (Communist once upon a time - Emilia-Romagna, the Marches, Tuscany and Umbria) will almost certainly give the PD a majority. The “white” regions (Christian Democrat – Venetia, Lombardy and parts of the south) are much less certain. Now that there is a strong centrist option with Monti, the votes will be evenly split and even in the red belt, a protest vote for Beppe Grillo’s Movimento 5 Stelle (Five Star Movement) or the new Arancione (Orange) movement could cause problems for Bersani.

The electoral system means that American terms and techniques will be used. Whoever wins Lombardy takes 27 (out of 49) seats; Latium 16/28. Both regions will be campaigning for their regional governments at the same time and the centre left is hoping that disgust at the outgoing centre-right’s corruption will not only give them a regional victory but will bring them the Senate in tow. Sicily with its 25 seats (14 to the relative majority) voted in October and returned a centre left government. These are the key “swing regions”.

The coalitions must indicate a leader (not, strictly speaking a candidate for prime minister as the President has the prerogative of choosing the prime minister). The debate over the last week was whether, and then how Mario Monti would be present in the centrist coalition. In his pre-Christmas press conference he was highly critical of politics based on leaders rather than programmes. Now he has become a “leader” himself.
The last important technical element of the Porcellum is the obligation to present lists of candidates supported by citizens’ signatures… more than 120,000 for new parties (the exact number depends on the number of registered voters). Not an easy task. But two days ago, Parliament amended that section of the law reducing the necessary number by 75% for new parties outside Parliament and by a further 60% for breakaway groups within the old Parliament. That means that Grillo will have to find around 30,000 signatures and Ignazio La Russa former minister and outgoing deputy who created his own group a week ago will have to find around 12,000. The old saying in Italian is “fatta la legge, gabbato lo santo” “as soon as the law is made, the saint is made a fool”.

There is life yet in this little pig.

James Walston is an associate professor if international relations at the American University of Rome