How Italy experienced (yet another) electoral system and why it may soon change it again

download.000lp (1)ap (1)This year saw the Italian electorate vote under a new electoral system for the first time. However, this is the fourth time in 25 years that legislative reform has been passed by the Italian parliament. Gianfranco Baldini, Andrea Pedrazzani and Luca Pinto discuss how the new law came about and analyse how it operated in practice. 

On 4 March 2018, Italy went to the polls using the fourth new electoral law (the Rosato law) approved since 1993, when Italy created a mixed-member majoritarian system selecting 75% of MPs in single-member constituencies, and the remaining 25% via proportional representation. The Mattarella Law, named after Sergio Mattarella, who now serves as President of the Republic, helped to bring about a bi-polarization of the party system along two main centre-right and centre-left coalitions. This year, no coalition or party obtained an absolute majority of seats in parliament. More than two months has passed since the vote and no government has yet been formed. If and when one emerges, a possible consensus could rise on a new electoral law, before calling fresh elections to break the deadlock.

Matthew Shugart has assessed the first effects of the new electoral law and here we analyse the main reasons behind this continuous change of provisions, some of the effects with regard to party system fragmentation, and two controversial aspects of the Rosato law, namely the provision for multiple candidacies and gender parity.

Why so many reforms?

The record number of electoral reforms over the last quarter of a century is due both to partisan reasons and to some Italian peculiarities. Among the latter, two (intertwined) factors stand out: the uncertain path of institutional reforms over the same period and the lack of institutionalisation of the party system that emerged after the 1994 election.

Regarding the first factor, the failure of two constitutional reforms proposed by the two main coalitions (which failed to secure popular support as a result of Constitutional Referendums in 2006 and 2016) means that Italy still has a very cumbersome double investiture procedure (from both chambers of parliament) before new governments can be sworn in. Moreover, since the Italian Constitution prescribes the Senate to be elected ‘on a regional basis’, and voters can only vote for this latter Chamber once they reach the age of 25, several recent elections saw no consistent majorities in the two Chambers.

The coalitions led by Silvio Berlusconi and Matteo Renzi devised two bonus-adjusted PR systems (the Calderoli law in 2005, and the Italicum law in 2015), designed to assure a majority for the plurality coalition. The first law was applied in three elections, before being partially struck down by the Italian Constitutional Court in 2014. Another intervention by the Court – in 2016 – also meant that the ‘Italicum’ was never applied, and the Rosato Law was then approved with the votes of the centre-left and parts of the centre-right coalition in 2017 (with the strong opposition of the Five Star Movement, M5S).

As for lack of institutionalisation, Italy is the only country in Western Europe with as many as three – all recent – elections among the ten most ‘volatile’ since 1945 (see table 1). The lower (but still very high) volatility level of 2018 is due to the consolidation of a tri-polar dynamic that first emerged with the breakthrough of the M5S in 2013, when both coalitions lost many votes to this new anti-establishment party. But why should volatility be a relevant factor? As a recent analysis put it: ‘volatility due to the emergence of new parties is the most powerful explanation to account for the introduction of electoral reforms’. 

Table 1: The ten most volatile elections in Western Europe (1945-2018)

Country Year Total Volatility
Greece 2012 48.5
Spain 1982 43.8
France 2017 40.7
Italy 1994 39.2
Italy 2013 36.6
Iceland 2013 34.6
Netherlands 2002 31.3
Ireland 2011 29.6
France 2002 27.7
Italy 2018 26.7

Source: Authors’ update of dataset on electoral volatility

The M5S was the clear winner of the 2018 election. However, the centre-right got more votes (37%), and now has 42.5% of the seats, whereas data on vote flows show many voters of the defeated incumbent Democratic Party (PD, 18.7%) contributed to the triumph of the M5S. No government majority seems possible without the M5S, so far a staunch defender of PR and hostile to any compromise with other forces in its first five years in parliament. While a simulation held after the election claimed that no other electoral system could have compressed the tri-polar structure of the party system, the extent to which such an exercise could affect the strategies of the parties with regard to yet another electoral reform remains to be seen.

A less fragmented party system?

A set of provisions in the new electoral rules have helped to reduce the fragmentation of the Italian party system compared to the past. First of all, the Rosato law has established a mixed-member system, with 37% of legislative seats (232 of a possible 630 in the Chamber of Deputies, 116 of a possible 315 in the Senate) assigned by plurality, and 61% of seats (386 and 193, respectively) allocated through PR in multi-member constituencies. In each chamber, the remaining 2% of seats are elected by Italian voters living abroad. Although the PR quota is predominant, the new electoral system has contained the number of party lists participating in the elections as well as the number of parties actually entering the parliament. On the one hand, some parties coordinated and built electoral alliances in order to present common candidates in each single-member district. Indeed, two electoral cartels – centre-left and centre-right – formed. On the other hand, the relatively small number of multi-member constituencies subject to PR decreased the overall fragmentation in the electoral supply.

Secondly, the representation threshold established by the Rosato law is higher than the threshold set by previous electoral systems. Parties can now enter the parliament only if they obtain at least 3% of the vote. This also implies that the best way in which the leaders of minor parties can win a legislative seat is by participating in an electoral alliance with larger parties and negotiating the possibility to run as candidates in a supposedly safe single-member district.

Thirdly, the formal requirements that parties had to fulfil in order to participate in the elections seriously penalised new parties, as the rules that applied to newcomers are substantially different from those that applied to parties with an established parliamentary presence. While incumbent parties were exempted from collecting signatures, new parties had to collect a minimum of 20,000 signatures in order to participate. Moreover, they had to present lists in at least two-thirds of the multi-member constituencies in a region. Although the required number of signatures was certainly attainable, new parties had just one month to collect them (from 28 December 2017 to 29 January 2018). Such rules hindered the participation of several small parties that were not already in parliament, while favouring some minor groups that were in parliament during the 2013-2018 session.

Finally, the general election of March 2018 was the first in which Italian parties were not entitled to receive any refund from the state for the expenses sustained during their electoral campaign. The absence of the so-called ‘electoral refunds’ has certainly increased the costs of participation, especially for smaller parties.

All these elements raised the costs of participating in March 2018 in comparison with the previous election in 2013. It does not come as a surprise, then, that since 2013 both the number of lists and individual candidates have markedly reduced. Considering just the Chamber of Deputies for the sake of simplicity, we can see that the party lists participating in the election added up to 47 in 2013, but fell to just 28 five years later. Likewise, in 2018 the number of candidates standing for election to the Chamber has almost halved, from 9,897 five years ago to only 5,058 in March.

Multiple candidacies and gender parity

A couple of further provisions of the new electoral system are worth discussing, as they have shaped party strategies concerning candidate selection. One of them is the possibility of multiple candidacies, the other is a provision intended to balance the presence of men and women in the Italian parliament.

Concerning the former, the Rosato law enables the same candidate to run for office in a single-member district and to be simultaneously included on a party list in up to five multi-member constituencies. Multiple candidacies are not new, as they have been allowed for in all the electoral systems previously adopted in Italy. Especially during the past decade, multiple candidacies had been used by the leaders of Italian parties to control the rank-and-file by favouring the election of those candidates who were most loyal to the leader. This happened because a candidate elected in more than one constituency could choose the constituency in which s/he would be proclaimed as winner. However, this is no longer possible under the Rosato law. When a candidate is elected in more than one multi-member constituency, they are allocated the seat in the constituency where their party has obtained the lowest percentage of votes. Moreover, a candidate elected both in a single-member district and in one or more multi-member districts wins the seat that was at stake in the single-member district.

Table 2 reports information about the use of multiple candidacies by all the parties that obtained representation in the Chamber in 2018. Each row corresponds to a possible combination of multiple candidacies: being a candidate only in a multi-member constituency (1+0), being a candidate both in a multi-member constituency and in a single-member district (1+1), being a candidate in two multi-member constituencies (2+0), being a candidate in two multi-member constituencies and at the same time in a single-member district (2+1), and so on.

Table 2 – Multiple candidacies by party (%), Italian Chamber of Deputies 2018.

Formula FI FDI Lega LEU M5S PD
1+0 77.00 84.24 76.85 65.57 77.20 75.56
1+1 10.33 3.94 8.87 24.06 22.80 19.11
2+0 6.10 4.93 6.40 4.72 0.00 1.78
2+1 2.82 1.97 3.45 1.42 0.00 0.89
3+0 0.94 0.00 0.49 0.47 0.00 0.89
3+1 2.35 0.99 0.49 0.94 0.00 0.00
4+0 0.00 0.99 0.99 0.47 0.00 0.00
4+1 0.00 0.49 1.48 1.89 0.00 0.44
5+0 0.00 0.49 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00
5+1 0.47 1.97 0.99 0.47 0.00 1.33
Total 100.00 100.00 100.00 100.00 100.00 100.00

Note: Data cover only candidates to the Chamber of Deputies. Candidates who only ran in a single-member district are not considered.

Party acronyms: Forza Italia (FI, Go Italy), Fratelli d’Italia (FDI, Brothers of Italy), Lega (League, former Northern League), Liberi e Uguali (LEU, Free and Equal), Movimento 5 stelle (M5S, Five Star Movement), Partito democratico (PD, Democratic Party).

Source: Authors’ elaboration using data taken from the website of the Ministry of Interior.

As shown in the table, Italian parties have only marginally resorted to ‘extreme’ multiple candidacies, whereby a candidate appears in five multi-member constituencies and at the same time in a single-member district (5+1). The most frequent combination of multiple candidacies is the ‘moderate’ 1+1 formula. While being used in the past as an instrument for controlling party members, in 2018 multiple candidacies have served mostly as a parachute for prominent – but presumably not so popular – politicians whose success in a single-member district was considered uncertain.

Multiple candidacies also helped party leaders to meet the formal requirements of the Rosato law concerning gender equality in the selection of candidates. More precisely, party lists must be filled in such a way that each candidate cannot be followed by a candidate of the same gender (i.e. the ‘zipper’ principle). Moreover, neither male candidates nor female candidates from the same party can be present in single-member districts or at the top of the list more than 60% of the time. To satisfy these conditions, a high number of female candidates were nominated among the multi-candidates.

screenshot_20180501-1640012.pngNotes: Data cover only candidates to the Chamber of Deputies. Multiple candidacies are counted just once.

Source: Authors’ elaboration using data taken from the website of the Ministry of Interior.

Although the Rosato law aims at securing equal representation of women, the results move away from their original purpose. Figure 1 graphically illustrates the percentage of women among candidates for the Chamber and among elected deputies from 1976 to 2018. As shown by the solid black line, in 40 years the percentage of female candidates has increased by a factor of four. While in the 1976 elections just 12% of Italian would-be deputies were women, in 2018 women comprised 44% of the total population of candidates for the Chamber. The Rosato law has then broadly balanced the presence of males and females among Italian candidates. Things are however substantially different if we look at the presence of women in the Italian parliament. The dotted line in the figure shows a general growth in the percentage of female deputies after 1976: the percentage of women elected in the Chamber in 2018 is three times that observed four decades ago. Nonetheless, in 2018 the percentage of women among elected deputies is just 36%, which is well below the percentage of female candidates. The high number of women standing in multiple ways was partially responsible for this difference, since the seats left vacant by elected women were assigned to male candidates from the same party according to the zipper system.

What lies ahead?

As we write, the process of government formation still looks very uncertain. Preliminary talks among the parties have not involved the question of electoral reform. Despite being key elements in the capacity of parties to be effective and legitimate actors, the changing dynamics of fragmentation and gender representation in parliament have not attracted enough attention. It is not wise to make any prediction on future events. A possibly decisive point regards the attitude of the pivotal actor that emerged in the 2018 election. The M5S is now adopting a much more pragmatic face in its attempt to form a government, but one crucial aspect will regard the abandonment by the party of its strong hostility towards majority-assuring devices, which could theoretically speed up the future processes of government formation, and ultimately also favour a realignment of the party system along bi-polar lines.

About the authors

Gianfranco Baldini is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Bologna.

Andrea Pedrazzani is adjunct professor of Political Science at the University of Bologna. He tweets as @andrea_piter.

Luca Pinto is adjunct professor at the University of Bologna and the Free University of Bozen.


2 thoughts on “How Italy experienced (yet another) electoral system and why it may soon change it again

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