Carol King explains how the Italian electoral system works and looks at the main players in the forthcoming general election.
The Italian general election will take place on the 24th and 25th of February. Finding your way around the numerous political parties, coalitions and complex rules can be bewildering. Here’s a simplified guide to what’s what in the world of Italian politics.
Parliament: Two Chambers
Italy has a bicameral parliament like Australia, Canada, the USA and the UK. There are two houses: the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, and the upper house, the Senate of the Republic. The two houses of parliament have equal powers.
Members of the Chamber of Deputies are elected by voters, who must be aged 18 or more. The Chamber of Deputies has 630 seats: 618 are elected by Italian constituencies and 12 by Italian citizens living abroad. Chamber of Deputies members must be at least 25 years old.
Members of the Senate are elected by voters, who must be aged 25 or more. The Senate consists of 315 elected members, six of whom are elected by Italian citizens living abroad. Senate members must be at least 40 years old. However, the Senate also includes ‘Senators for Life’, who are either former Italian presidents or people appointed on merit by a president in office.
Both houses are elected for a five-year term.
Who’s In Charge: President And Prime Minister
Italy has a president and prime minister. The president is officially the ‘President of the Italian Republic’ and is the head of state, somewhat like Queen Elizabeth II in the UK. The president is elected by the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate in a secret ballot. The office holder has to be aged 50 or more. However, being president is not a lifetime role and a presidential term lasts seven years. The current president is Giorgio Napolitano, who was elected in 2006. He is reaching the end of his term so a new president will be elected this year.
Confusingly, the prime minister of Italy is officially known as the ‘President of the Council of Ministers of the Italian Republic’. The prime minister is the head of the government. The current prime minister is Mario Monti, who came to office in November 2011 as the head of a technocrat government, meaning that he was not elected to office by citizens, but was invited to form a new government by President Napolitano after previous PM Silvio Berlusconi resigned from the post.
How Voting Works: The Electoral System
The present electoral system, approved on December 14, 2005, is based on party-list representation with a series of thresholds to encourage parties to form coalitions. It replaced an Additional Member Electoral System which had been introduced in the 1990s.
This party-list proportional voting system means that the political parties make lists of candidates to be elected. Seats are then allocated to each party in proportion to the number of votes the party receives. So voters cast votes for a party list rather than for individual candidates. Candidates on the lists are ranked in order of priority, so if a party wins for example 15 seats, the first fifteen candidates on its list receive seats in parliament.
In voting for the Chamber of Deputies, the coalition that gets the largest number of votes wins. However, if it obtains less than 55% of the seats then it gets a bonus, whereby its number of seats is increased to 340.
In voting for the Senate, voters also cast votes for a party list in 18 of Italy’s 20 regions. However, seats are allocated according to a fiendishly complicated system, which for example, sees seats given to parties that may have received as little as 3% of the vote. What is important to remember is that to win the upper house, a coalition has to have a 158-seat majority.
2013 Election: The Main Players
Partito Democratico (Democratic Party, PD)
Led by a former Communist, Pier Luigi Bersani, the party represents the centre-left. He has pledged to uphold Italy’s fiscal commitments to the European Union and not to dismantle key legislation introduced by the outgoing government. However, Bersani has explained he wants to soften the impact of various measures by introducing more flexibility for workers and by championing the poor, putting more emphasis on economic growth. The PD’s main coalition partner is the Sinistra Ecologia Libertà (Left Ecology Freedom, SEL).
Popolo della Libertà (People of Freedom, PdL)
Led by the former prime minister, billionaire media mogul and soccer-club owner Berlusconi, the PdL represents the centre-right. Berlusconi is running on an anti-austerity, tax-cutting agenda he claims can be financed by cutting public spending. The PdL’s main coalition partner is the Lega Nord (Northern League), a regionalist party that is against immigration, advocates federalism, and demands autonomy and special rights for Italy’s northern regions. The Northern League said it would not support Berlusconi as prime minister in the case of an electoral win. Berlusconi has claimed that although he is still the party leader he is not running to be prime minister again but would accept a role as Minister of Economy under a cabinet headed by another PdL member, most likely his protégée, the party secretary, Angelino Alfano.
Berlusconi has faced numerous criminal indictments over the years; most recently, he was convicted of tax fraud in October 2012 and banned from public office for three years. However, the Italian legal process has three stages; it is only at the third and final stage that a conviction stands. Berlusconi’s latest conviction for tax fraud has only reached the first stage, hence he is still able to run for office.
Con Monti per l’Italia (With Monti for Italy)
Mario Monti formed a centrist coalition in December 2012 with the aim of continuing the reforms he started during office to promote economic development, stop corruption, create jobs and liberalise labour legislation to encourage businesses.
Monti’s critics bemoan the austerity measures introduced when he was in charge, which were an attempt to stem the unfolding economic crisis regarding Italy’s debt.
An economist and academic, Monti was appointed a Senator for Life by President Napolitano in November 2011 just before he became prime minister. This means Monti cannot stand for parliament, as he is a member of the Senato, but could still become prime minister if his coalition wins.
The coalition consists of Monti’s new party, Scelta Civica (Civic Choice, SC), Unione di Centro (Union of the Centre, UdC) and Futuro e Libertà per l’Italia (Future and Freedom for Italy, FLI). Some members of the PD and PdL have defected from their parties to join Monti’s coalition.
MoVimento 5 Stelle (5 Star Movement, M5S)
Led by blogger and comedian Beppe Grillo, the M5S launched in 2009 and it represents the arrival of fresh blood in Italian politics. A populist party, M5S adopts an anti-corruption and anti-establishment stance, espousing a mix of policies from both the left and right of the political spectrum. The movement chose not to yoke itself to any of the other established parties to contest the election. It eschews Italy’s mainstream media, opting to campaign via social media and by touring the country hosting gatherings in squares in towns and cities. Grillo is not in the running for a seat.
Rivoluzione Civile (Civil Revolution)
Another new face on the Italian political scene, anti-mafia magistrate Antonio Ingroia, leads the newly formed party Rivoluzione Civile with ex-magistrate Luigi de Magistris, who is currently the mayor of Naples. At the moment the party has over 4 percent support in the polls. Ingroia is also the director of a UN investigation against narcotraffic in Guatemala.
Fermare il Declino (Stop the Decline)
This is another new party led by journalist and economist Oscar Giannino making its electoral debut with an impressive array of liberal economic proposals. A law graduate, Giannino started his career in journalism becoming a famous business journalist known to the wide public also for his flamboyant dandy look. The party is likely to attract just a small fraction of the vote.
Outcome: Possible Scenario
Italian electoral law prohibits releasing polls via mass media two weeks before the vote, so as the election nears it is hard to have a clear picture of what the outcome may be.
Polls indicated that the PD is in the lead during the ongoing electoral campaign for seats in the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, although 10% to 15% of voters are undecided. The situation in the upper house, the Senate, looks more complicated because polls indicated that no coalition will gain a majority.
If election results bear out what polls indicate, the centre-left would have to find a coalition partner in the Senate, otherwise legislation would probably stall and Italy would find itself in gridlock. This is a situation Italy has been in before: often it has meant that a small party propping up the party with the largest number of seats has become key and had undue influence. It is also why so much bargaining has to be done between parties and why legislation proposals are diluted to keep all parties happy. In the worst-case scenario, it also means that a government is unstable.
If, as polls indicate, the centre-left wins the Chamber of Deputies, it will have to find a coalition partner in the Senate and give concessions to that partner. The most likely outcome would be a coalition between the centre-left led by Bersani and the centre led by Monti.