Thursday, February 22, 2007

Prodi's second fall, or the inane Italian electoral system

Romano Prodi has resigned today as prime minister of Italy, having narrowly lost a Senate vote on a nonbinding foreign policy resolution concerning Iraq (heh). Prodi needed 160 votes (a majority of members) to carry the day and got only 158.

While Prodi's Union coalition has a sizable majority in the Chamber of Deputies, in the Senate their majority is only two seats. This means that the Union has to rely on all its senators, including those from far left parties (the Communists and the Communist Refoundation). These parties often have very little in common with the centrist parties (such as the large, more centrist Margherita party or the smaller Italy of Values, among others). The Union coalition cannot cast these far-left parties aside, however, because the electoral system rewards relative majorities--to the extent that 55 percent of Chamber seats are guaranteed to the coalition or party that takes a relative majority. This electoral system was imposed by Berlusconi prior to the previous election in an attempt to manipulate the results.

However, the system is ridiculous. In addition to this 55 percent clause, seats are distributed proportionally to coalitions or parties in the provinces, to all coalitions receiving at least 10 percent nationwide and independent parties with at least 4 percent. Within coalitions, all parties receiving at least 2 percent are eligible, and the top party under 2 percent is also eligible. This is a recipe for allowing small parties to continue manipulating the larger ones--hardly a solution to one of the larger problems of the last electoral reform implemented in the early '90s.

Here's something radical: Why not an MMP or closed-list PR system with a 5% nationwide/3 SMD threshold (as in Germany)? Surviving parties would probably include the major parties of the center-left (Margherita as well as the Democrats of the Left, or a possible merger of those two), Berlusconi's Forza Italia, the rightist National Alliance, and the more centrist Union of Christian Democrats, plus possibly the Communist Refoundation and the regionalist Northern League. Yes, the smaller parties would be irritated, but given Italy's persistent instability, this solution is more than justified. [And yes, the Senate also needs to be reformed. In Italy's system where both chambers can hold the government to account, neither house should have an electoral law which disproportionately empowers small fringe parties.]

We may well see another electoral reform soon: President Georgio Napolitano, according to the NYT article, won't call elections until another reform has been enacted. Maybe this time it will finally be a logical one.

[The best overview of the history and intricacies of the system, so far as I am aware, is here.]

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