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Lessons from Italy’s election, part three: how Italy’s new election law killed the “ins” who drafted it

In part two of this five-parter on the recent Italian elections, I noted the strange symmetry between the three Eurosceptic populist parties’ levels of support. Treated as a group, they received roughly the same level of support in every part of the country – dipping slightly in the wealthier, large cities and la zone rossa, and rising a bit when one gets to Italian ‘flyover country’1. I doubt this is a coincidence. I believe that Italy’s new election law, passed by the two large coalitions over the vociferous objections of M5S (the Five Star Movement), created an implicit incentive among voters who wanted radical change to choose the populist party of within the coalition best situated to win that region.

The new law, called the Rosatellum after its author, Ettore Rosato, moved Italy from a system of nationwide proportional representation (with a plurality bonus) to a hybrid system like Hungary’s. The old law (in place for the 2013 election) provided that parties could group together in lists and the list that received the most votes nationally received 54% of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies. Similarly, lists that received a plurality in each region in the vote for the Senate received 54% of that region’s Senators. Under this system, M5S theoretically could have received a majority of the seats in both chambers with as little as 34% of the vote nationwide – so long as their vote was geographically distributed across Italy to gain a Senate majority.

The Rosatellum replaced this with a two-tiered system identical for each chamber. In each chamber, about 37% of the seats would be elected on a first-past-the-post plurality system in geographically distinct district, much as members to the American House of Representatives or British House of Commons are elected. Most of the remainder would be selected via proportional representation, with the number of seats awarded via a party’s share of the vote nationwide. Parties could combine their totals to win the district seats, but their PR seats would be determined by their share of the party list vote. Only parties with 3% of the national vote could receive seats via PR.

To prevent split-ticket voting, an elector could not choose to vote for a candidate of one party and support the party list of another. Instead, the voter was forced to either choose a party list (votes for that list would be applied to the candidate for the district seats that party backed), or vote for both the candidate and a specific list. A voter who just chose a candidate would see their vote applied to all the lists supporting him or her in proportion to the share of the votes each list received in that district. Voters who still tried to vote for a candidate of one party and a list of another had their ballots annulled.

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These provisions created an incentive for voters to vote tactically – otherwise one’s vote runs the risk of being wasted. If you wanted change but your preferred party was likely to finish third in a district, voting for that party reduced your chance of winning the district seat. Your vote had more value if instead you supported the populist party of the coalition that stands the best chance of beating the candidate of the status quo whether or not that party is your first choice.

Looked at this way, the populist intent of voters was clear. Outside of Liguria and Venice, M5S had run a distant third throughout Italy’s north in 2013. In these regions, the race was effectively between the centre-right and centre-left. Populist voters could thus vote for Lega or the Fratelli, dealing a defeat to the incumbent centre-left government parties in districts, while still preserving their populist preference for the nationally-awarded PR seats. The reverse was true in the south, where M5S had run well in 2013 and was the primary challenger to the establishment right party of Forza Italia. If you wanted change and not simply a specific policy adopted, you had to vote for M5S  candidates and for the party list to ensure that establishment centre-right candidates did not get elected. Thus, the very law enacted for the purpose of limiting populist power served to enhance it.

This system has given the populists more power in Parliament than they would have had under a simple national PR system. M5S, Lega, and the Fratelli have a combined 386 seats in the Chamber, or a bit over 61% of the total, even though they received only a shade more than 54% of the vote. They hold about 60% of the seats in the Senate with almost exactly 54% of the vote. But the possibility exists for a much more drastically unrepresentative possibility should the parties combine.

Recall that in part two I noted that the three populist parties received a majority of the vote almost everywhere in Italy. Should they form an untied list in the next election, they would win almost all of the single-member seats and half of the PR seats. This would give them close to two-thirds of Parliament, the very sort of supermajority that has enabled Viktor Orban to change Hungary’s politics decisively under a nearly identical system.

Like Orban, this level of support would allow a united populist front to unilaterally change the Italian Constitution. Constitutional changes normally requires approval in a popular referendum, but such a referendum cannot be held if the change is approved by a two-thirds majority in each House of Parliament. Thus, a united populist front could rewrite the Italian Constitution without any outside influence – should it ever obtain that degree of support.

Preventing that, if one believes the populist parties are dangerous, ought to be the primary goal of anyone interested in protecting Italy’s current involvement with Europe, NATO, and the West. Thus, it becomes extremely important to understand why things got so bad that Italians from across all walks of life decided to blow up their political system. That is the subject of part four in this series – published at the same time tomorrow.

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Lessons from Italy's election, part three: how Italy's new election law killed the "ins" who drafted it

By James Coney

  1.  Do read National Geographic on the origins of this expression: “The term “flyover country” is often used to derisively refer to the vast swath of America that’s not near the Atlantic or Pacific coasts. It sounds like the ultimate putdown to describe places best seen at cruising altitude, the precincts where political and cultural sophisticates visit only when they need to…” BUT…!