Italy’s new election law: a primer

Italy’s new election law: a primer

Italians will vote for their next government in 2018 in a newly-approved electoral system, the so-called Rosatellum Bis. How will it affect the next elections in Italy? Which political party will benefit from the new electoral system?

There is no other democratic country in the world which has experienced more political instability than Italy. Compared to Lebanon, a country which has had  an average of 1.1 government crises per year in the period 1970-2013, Italy has registered a figure of 1.2 per year. During the most recent legislative period alone (2013-2018), there have been three different governments because no party or coalition has had enough seats to govern. This political instability produces uncertainty and fragility, and damages the effectiveness  of the government.

A  few days ago the Italian upper house finally approved a new electoral system which will regulate the next general election, which legally is due in March 2018, but could take place as late as November 2018. Supporters of the new electoral system argue that it will improve governmental stability while decreasing the distance between citizens and government. The so-called Rosatellum Bis was supported by Partito Democratico, Forza Italia, small liberal parties, and the Lega Nord, whereas Movimento Cinque Stelle and leftist parties strongly opposed the new electoral law.

While around two-thirds of the lower house supported the new law, it was not immediately obvious that the Rosatellum Bis would be approved. Indeed, it was supposed to be approved by 450 votes but it passed with only 375 yes votes. Electoral laws are always a crucial topic. Last June, the four main political parties (Partito Democratico, Lega Nord, Forza Italia and Movimento Cinque Stelle) agreed on an electoral system, the so-called “German System,” but this agreement suddenly fell apart. Now, the Rosatellum Bis has been approved by the two houses and signed by President Mattarella, and Italy has a new electoral system.

How the Rosatellum Bis works

Italy’s parliament under the Rosatellum Bis will have a total of 945 members, of which 630 make up the lower house (the Camera dei Deputati) and the remaining 315 compose the upper house (the Senato). While both bodies of parliament will remain the same size under the new law, the way delegates are chosen is set to change. Around a third of the PM’s are to be chosen by first past the post elections, while the remainder are chosen in proportion to the support their party received nationally. Thus, in each electoral district, the candidate who gets the most votes will be automatically elected.  In addition, the mixed vote will not be allowed. That is to say that a voter cannot vote for a candidate of one party in their district while supporting a different party or coalition at the national level. Finally, in order to gain the seats by proportional representation, parties need to win at least 3% of the vote in both houses, while coalitions need at least 10% of the vote.

The new electoral system will incentivise political coalitions. In any constituency there will be a battle to win the seats assigned on first-past-the-post basis. Therefore, parties with similar ideologies will need to run in coalitions in order to avoid splitting their support base and win a great number of constituencies. This will help the main right-wing political parties (Forza Italia, Lega Nord and Fratelli d’Italia), who are planning to run in a coalition. On the other hand, the main left-wing party, Partito Democratico, is suffering from a severe split and it will struggle  to establish a political coalition with the other left-wing parties. For their part, the Movimento Cinque Stelle feels the new system will penalize them because they are not keen to cooperate with any other Italian political party.

In addition, the new electoral system benefits political parties which have a strong regional power. This will allow the Partito Democratico to its bases in Toscana, Emilia Romagna and Umbria while the Lega Nord will count on Veneto, Lombardia and Piemonte. In contrast, Movimento Cinque Stelle does not have a strong local leadership. The party will therefore struggle to compete for the 36% of seats assigned on a first-past-the-post basis.

Winners and losers

With the new electoral law, Italy will experience a similar situation to the Spanish parliament in 2015. As in the Spanish case, there would be three main political factions in Italy (Movimento 5 Stelle, the right-wing coalition of Forza Italia-Lega Nord-Fratelli d’Italia, and a coalition of Partito Democratico and some small left wing parties), all of  which would control a similar number of seats in both houses. Because of this, projected electoral results suggest that the formation of the next parliament would be stalled, leaving the country without a stable government.

Index Research’s surveys show that Movimento Cinque Stelle is estimated to get 26.8% of the vote; the highest percentage gained by any party. While Partito Democratico would receive 25.5% of the vote, the other two main left-wing parties, Sinistra Italiana and Articolo Uno, are estimated to gain 2.1% and 3.0% respectively. In the right-wing coalition, instead, Forza Italia would receive 14.8% of the vote, Lega Nord about 14.2% and Fratelli d’Italia 5.3%. If these estimations are right, the right-wing coalition would win the next election getting around 34.3% of the vote against  30.6% of the vote received by a possible left-wing coalition.

According to another survey published by La Repubblica, the new electoral law would drastically affect the outcome of the next general election. The survey shows the composition of the lower house seats in two different scenarios. The first scenario is one in which projected voting corresponds to the current electoral law, whereas the second scenario represents the lower house seats voting under Rosatellum bis.

La Repubblica’s survey suggests that Partito Democratico and Lega Nord would be the winners with the new electoral system. The former would gain 19 seats while the latter would win 6 more seats. Alleanza Popolare would gain more 4 seats. On the contrary, Movimento Cinque Stelle would be significantly penalized losing 24 seats. Sinistra Unita and Fratelli d’Italia would lose 2 seats each.

Despite winning the most seats seats, the right-wing coalition still will not have a majority in the lower house. Forza Italia, Lega Nord and Fratelli d’Italia would get 209 seats but would fall more than 100 seats short of then 316 seats needed to control the lower house. Similarly, in the unlikely event that Partito Democratico and Sinistra Italiana manage to create a left-wing coalition, it too would fall short of the 316 mark. And as Movimento Cinque Stelle is not willing  to cooperate with any other political party, it would not have seats enough to govern unilaterally.

The findings above suggest that the new electoral system would effectively only allow for one government coalition: Forza Italia-Alleanza Popolare-Partito Democratico. This scenario thus necessitates another legislature in which the potential stability of any government will be based on the uneasy coalition of opposing political forces, with the moderate right-wing party of Forza Italia being forced to collaborate with the moderate left-wing Partito Democratico.

Continued governmental instability likely

Of course, any electoral system needs to find a balance between representative democracy and governmental stability. But in a democracy electoral laws are the “rules” of the game. Although the Rosatellum Bis has been presented as an electoral law able to guarantee governmental stability, it is clear that this is not the case. The next legislature will be as fragile as the last two legislatures in which Italy experienced technocratic, weak governments supported by unnatural coalitions. Any government supported by an apolitical coalition in which opposing political ideologies collaborate, cannot be strong or lasting.

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

Nicola Bilotta

Nicola Bilotta is a junior analyst at The Banker Research Team, Financial Times. He holds a BA in History, a MA in Historical Science, both from the University of Milan, and a MSC in Economic History from the London School of Economics and Political Science. He collaborates with ISAG (Istituto di Alti Studi di Geopolitica e Scienze Ausiliare) and with the Seven Pillar Institute for Finance & Ethics.