How a new electoral law could shape the 2018 Italian elections

Italy’s new electoral law – used for the first time in this weekend’s election – could have a wide-ranging impact on the country’s politics

By the end of Sunday 4th March Italian voters will discover a lot more about themselves than they have known for years, thanks to their brand new electoral law whose main target is to represent them in the new Parliament, rather than allowing the formation of a parliamentary majority to rule their country. This is the result of an historical process of 25 years of electoral reforms. This process started in 1993 with the majoritarian turn of the so-called ‘Mattarellum’; followed by the less appreciated ‘Porcellum’ in 2005 which was declared partially unconstitutional in 2014 and subsequently substituted by the so called ‘Italicum‘ (only valid for the Chamber of Deputies because it was tied to the (failed) constitutional reform of 2016; then finally, during 2017 the Constitutional Court ruled that this electoral law was partially conflicting with the Italian Constitution, and so in the last few months of the 17th legislature Italian MPs were focused on the production of a new electoral law before the scheduled 2018 general elections.

Comparing past and present electoral systems

It is important to consider the circumstances under which Italian MPs reformed their national electoral system in 1993. A few months earlier many politicians of parties in government had been found guilty of being financed by private entrepreneurs in order to facilitate their affairs. Considering how this situation connected with the party-system, Italian public opinion called for a change to the electoral law, thus leading the Parliament to establish for the first-time-ever a mixed system characterized by 75% of plurality (first-past-the-post) and 25% of proportional representation to elect MPs in the following 1994, 1996 and 2001 general elections.

As a result of this new electoral law, Italians experienced the growth of a bipolar political system, deciding to vote for either electoral coalitions mainly representing the centre-right and the centre-left of the political spectrum. When it became enough clear that the ‘Mattarellum’ was going to let the main opposition win the following 2006 elections, Berlusconi’s majority passed a new electoral law in 2005: the so called ‘Porcellum’, a proportional system with a majority bonus for the first party/coalition (at national level for the lower chamber, at regional level for the Senate) which was used in the 2006, 2008 and 2013 general elections.

The main targets of the 17th legislature elected in February 2013 were a set of reforms to move the country on from the post-financial crisis period: although public expenditures and economic growth were at the top of the to-do-list most of the reformist activity was dedicated to the elaboration of a new electoral law, the ‘Italicum’, which was strictly connected with the constitutional reform proposed by the Prime Minister Renzi.

Once the Constitutional Referendum did not pass in 2016 a new electoral law needed to be prepared by the Parliament, since the two existing ones derived from sentences of the Constitutional Court on the ‘Porcellum’ (for the Senate) and the ‘Italicum’ (for the Chamber of Deputies). After a first attempt to pass a new law failed in June 2017 a fresh attempt after the summer saw both chambers approve (with 8 votes of confidence) the new ‘Rosatellum’ electoral law.

Main points of the Rosatellum – Effects on candidacies; interplay at the regional level; poll results

The new Italian electoral law, so called ‘Rosatellum’ because of the deputy (Ettore Rosato) who presented the draft law, is a mixed system (64% proportional – 36% majoritarian), incorporating the main requirements deriving from the two sentences of the Constitutional Court on the previous electoral laws.  This new law abandoned the idea of seeking to assure that a ruling majority could be formed, thus heading towards a representative aim; it harmonized the different electoral laws ruling the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies; and finally, it was the expression of the Italian Parliament.

One of the big electoral changes after 1992/1993 was the search for a governing majority, and this move back to proportional representation in the new law has not been appreciated enough nationwide.

Harmonizing both chambers’ electoral laws let the critics remind people that at the very beginning of Italian republic the two chambers were designed to have different electors, members and characteristics (although, most of these differences only lasted until 1953).

Although it was only approved with 8 votes of confidence by both chambers, allowing its critics to undermine the validity of the procedure, more parliamentarians voted for the Rosatellum than any other Italian electoral law.

Approval percentages Mattarellum Rosatellum
Senate of the Republic 39% 67%
Chamber of Deputies 55% 60%

The Rosatellum has a range of new features which are worth us considering:

Providing the return to the ‘power of coalitions’ (which the ‘Italicum’ abandoned), the Rosatellum has three main national thresholds for parties to participate in the distribution of seats in Parliament: 1) parties under 1% of the national vote do not have any representation; 2) those parties forming a coalition who receive a percentage of votes between 1% and 3%  add their results to the coalition, but without receiving seats; 3) coalitions that include at least one party who received more than 3%, have to reach 10% of the ballots in order to receive seats.

Candidacies for the national seats (618 for the lower Chamber, 309 for the Senate) are restricted to one per party in the single-member constituencies (116 for the Senate and 232 for the Chamber) and up to five in the multi-member constituencies. It is very interesting to analyze the criteria for the allocation of the seats, since it is straightforward that winners in the plurality do get that seat, but where this were not the case, they could gain election in a constituency where they received a lower number of votes.

One more restriction, is that voters are now not able to choose a party list while voting for candidates (gender equality being provided) of other political forces outside of the coalition: this is going to be an interesting point when observing, in the same day, how many votes will be cancelled in the two Italian regions voting with different rules (Lazio and Lombardia), since enduring habits are extremely hard to win.

Finally, it is relevant, for the reasons behind it and the effects that this measure will produce, to consider the introduction of an antifraud voting card. Its introduction is a recognition of the practice of selling votes and sends a message to those who relied on this to guarantee their results, yet it will probably slowdown electoral procedures, thus implying possible traffic and queueing at polling stations.

In summary, after all these points, a few questions could arise:

  • Due to the rules for allocation of the seats, which seats will candidates be elected for? Some solution that have been adopted can be read here;
  • What will the differences be for voting national and regional? A useful answer would come from some examples of coalition-making at both levels: whereas M5S (Five Star Movement) does not seek to make coalitions anywhere, centre-left and centre-right coalitions are not composed by the same parties (ex-PD members who gave birth to a new left movement – LeU -, are running alone in areas where the Democratic Party is likely to do badly – Parliament and Lombardia -, but they are running together in Lazio where the Democratic Party is set to do well), and this varies because of the level of administration (State/Region) and the geographical position (North-Centre/South);
  • With the target of the new law to represent Italians rather than assuring a majority to govern Italy for five years, what are the possible scenarios? While numbers during all the electoral campaign have been very stable at a macro level, observable variations could be found inside the coalitions, especially the centre-right, with Berlusconi’s Forza Italia acting as the frontrunner of its coalition, necessary for expressing his candidate for the Premiership, the actual President of the European Parliament Antonio Tajani.

This article is the seventh in a new SPERI Comment series with the PSA Italian Politics Specialist Group on the 2018 Italian election. Read all of the articles in the series so far here.