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23 March 2006

Fear and Loathing on the (Italian) Campaign Trail: Episode One

These days, Italians don't get to vote quite as often as they used to. For the first time in the country's postwar history, we are being called to the polls on April 9 to vote on a government that has accomplished the extraordinary feat of serving a full legislative term. Critics may say it is the only accomplishment the Berlusconi government is legitimately entitled to claim. And, indeed, holding together - for a full five years - a ragtag coalition of know nothings, post-socialists, post-fascists, libertarians, and prudish altar boys - joined in the occasion of the upcoming elections by the real fascists led by Alessandra Mussolini in persona - was no cupcake. It may not have been an endeavor worthy of Winston Churchill, Napoleon, or Jesus Christ - to whom Berlusconi humbly compared himself over the course of a single week - but it's not a bad thing to have on your cv if you are looking for a job in management. Certainly, it remains to be seen whether the center-left will be able to claim so impressive a success, should it fail to once again snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory. As it turns out, the Ulivo is itself a motley crew of anti-globalization activists, squatters, anarchists, communists, post-communists, and post-Christian Democrats scotch-taped together by the strange cult of personality of a career bureaucrat - aptly nicknamed "Mortadella" after the cheapest of Italian cured meats - who was once in charge of the government holdings company during the lost days of the Italian mixed economy. Italians better hold a wet handkerchief to their mouths and noses when they walk into those polling stations. The stench will be unbearable.

An interesting by-product of the increasing africanization of Italian politics is the increased malleability of the rules of the game, which now seem to have lost so much of their proverbial stickiness that even the most brazen of manipulations goes almost unnoticed. Armed with opinion polls demonstrating the growing collective queasiness over the Berlusconi government's redecoration of the country's legal code and its inability to defibrillate an economy with no pulse, the "governing" coalition used a little muscle this winter and dug deep into the endless reserve of Italian creativity to swiftly push through an electoral reform. The majoritarian component of the Italian mixed system - once the subject of a hard-fought campaign that won the support of 85% of the voters in a 1993 referendum - was summarily cashiered, as the government triumphally announced the improbable return of proportional representation. No one even bothered to cook up an excuse to justify the return to a system once held responsible for each and every evil of the First Republic. "Technical problems," Berlusconi says.

But as the eternal Giovanni Sartori was quick to point out, the new "proportional" system is not all that proportional.

In the Chamber of Deputies, the new law makes sure that the "winning" coalition - even if it fails to win an actual majority - will take home at least 55% of the seats (340 out of 630) thanks to a majority premium. The loot is then shared by the coalition's parties that received more than 2% of the vote, this time in actual proportion to their vote shares. This makes governing easier, Berlusconi has claimed. And one can't really argue with that, nor fail to appreciate the candor exhibited by our savior the "Jesus Christ of politics" (his words, not mine). The rest of the seats are given to the other, sub-plurality coalitions with more than 10%, to unaffiliated parties with more than 4% nationally, and to parties representing officially recognized linguistic minorities that received more than 20% of the vote in their constituency.

In the Senate, the law is even more complicated. This time, the majority premium is assigned within each region to the coalition with the largest number of votes locally. The rest of the seats, in each region, goes to coalitions with more than 20% of the votes and to unaffiliated parties that received at least 8% of the vote. In this case, the "it makes governing easier" explanation doesn't make as much sense. The law simply makes red regions redder and blue regions bluer.

Posted by Federico Ferrara at March 23, 2006 10:45 PM


Thanks for this. I have been puzzled over various descriptions of this new electoral system in the press. None of them added up.

What an odd system. But, given Berlusconi's intentions, it all makes sense now.

Posted by: Matthew Shugart at April 5, 2006 5:13 PM