Italy’s best-ever shot at political reform is no sure thing

Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi. EPA/Julien Warnand

On 12 March, Italy’s Chamber of Deputies approved proposals for major electoral reform, which must now be passed by the senate. The proposals are the fruit of a cross-party agreement that has given Italy its best prospects in almost a decade of real electoral reform – something that recent history shows the country desperately needs.

In 2005, the then centre-right government under Silvio Berlusconi used its parliamentary majority to secure an electoral law that has twice brought the country to the brink of ungovernability: once after the election of 2006, and again after the election of February last year.

As a result, that law contributed to the explosion of support for the anti-political Five-Star Movement (M5S), which last year became one of Italy’s three largest parties. The problem was that the M5S would co-operate with neither of the other two to form a post-election government. Until the crisis of last year’s election added real urgency, reform had always been stymied by the interlocking vetoes of the political parties in Italy’s fragmented parliament.

There are two basic issues underlying the now-proposed reforms. Unusually among western democracies, Italy’s parliament is “perfectly bicameral”, meaning that both chamber and senate, elected simultaneously, have identical legislative powers. Bills can only be passed if the two branches can agree on identically worded texts, which must otherwise shuttle back and forth between them until such agreement can be reached. In addition, governments must retain the confidence of both in order to remain in office. This would not be especially problematic if it were not for the fact that the 2005 electoral law makes different provisions for the two branches – with the risk of different majorities being elected in each house.

This is exactly what happened last year. The centre-left had a comfortable overall majority in the chamber, but was in a minority in the senate. In the end, a government based on a grand coalition of centre-left and centre-right was only formed after the president made it clear there was no alternative. Italy risked having to face the international financial collapse and other internal crises without either a head of state or a prime minister in place.

The 2005 law has wrought havoc before. In 2006, it resulted in the formation of a nine-party coalition so unwieldy it collapsed after just two years – just as intended by its architect, Silvio Berlusconi. Berlusconi had introduced the law to guarantee that if he could not win the 2006 election, he could simply make life impossible for his opponents. He therefore provided for a proportional system with a bonus of seats, guaranteeing a chamber majority to the party or coalition of parties winning the most votes, and with exclusion thresholds that would be lower for parties participating in electoral coalitions than for parties running independently.

Since the outcome in 2006 was uncertain, the incentive on all concerned was to form the most all-inclusive coalitions possible. This made governing after the election especially difficult for the centre-left, as it was the more fragmented of the two coalitions.

Onward and upward

The current proposals, which apply to the chamber only, envisage a closed-list system of proportional representation, with candidates fielded in 120 “colleges”. There would be new national-level exclusion thresholds of 4.5% for parties running as part of a coalition, and 8% for those running solo. The party or coalition obtaining at least 37% would be awarded a bonus of up to 15% of the seats, provided this did not take it beyond 55% of the total; otherwise, the party would receive a bonus of whatever size necessary to bring it to this percentage. In the event of no party or coalition reaching 37%, there would be a run-off ballot between the two most popular, the winner receiving an automatic 55% seat allocation.

Reform had proved impossible to achieve because while a majority combination could often be assembled for one aspect of a proposal, and alternative combinations for other aspects, there was never a majority combination of parties willing to give support for a final reading of an entire package. If this pointed in the direction of the reform paradox – the impossibility of achieving reform when those with the power to deliver it are precisely the ones whose behaviour requires reforming – then attempts to cut through it through recourse to referendums had failed too. In 1999, 2000 and 2009 alike, electoral law referendums had all been foiled because their promoters could not summon the minimum 50% turnout required by law.

The prospects for reform today are much better. Despite internal rumblings, the two largest parties promoting it – Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) – command a clear overall majority in parliament, and both have a strong incentive to secure it: the threat posed by the M5S, which took votes from both centre left and centre right in 2013.

DP prime minister Matteo Renzi needs to pull the rug from under the M5S’s feet by showing that he can deliver reform that will dislodge unpopular vested interests. Both he and Berlusconi also naturally want to sponsor a reform that will make life difficult for the M5S. Because of the party’s opposition appeal, it would be hard for it to run in alliance with other parties; it would therefore be less likely than the other two main contenders either to reach the magic share of 37%, or to make it through to any run-off ballot.

On its own, however, the reform will not be enough, since it only applies to the Chamber of Deputies. Even if it finds its way onto the statute books, symmetric bicameralism will continue to cause trouble. The senate is therefore the subject of a second joint Berlusconi-Renzi reform proposal, which would radically change its composition, severely limit its powers, (giving the final say concerning bills to the chamber), and abolish its power to install and end governments through the confidence vote.

That reform will require even more cumbersome constitutional change – but without it, the case for the chamber reform will lose much of its power. And here the reform paradox comes into play: can we really expect existing senators to vote themselves out of existence? With all these political hurdles to overcome, Italy is certainly not out of the woods yet.