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Berlusconi changing Italian voting system ?

by whataboutbob Thu Sep 15th, 2005 at 02:49:43 PM EST

From Today's Financial Times, with thanks to Soj, and a good discussion in a comments thread, that led me to this:

Italy's opposition boycotts parliament

Italy's centre-left opposition on Wednesday boycotted parliament in protest at a government proposal to overhaul the voting system just months before next year's national election.

Opposition leaders fear the changes are designed to overcome their lead in opinion polls. They accused the centre-right coalition government of Silvio Berlusconi, prime minister, of subverting democracy by seeking to ram the changes through parliament without their consent.

"This is a desperate attempt to change the rules of the game at the last minute," said Romano Prodi, the centre-left leader who will fight Mr Berlusconi for the premiership in the elections, due by next May.

This sounds highly suspect to me, that a person that is currently in power and in trouble politically, is trying at the 11th hour to change the voting system in Italy.

Mr Berlusconi's Forza Italia party and its three main allies announced plans on Tuesday to pass legislation that would change the electoral system in two fundamental ways.

First, Italy would move to full proportional representation, with parties being required to win at least 4 per cent of the national vote. At present, 75 per cent of parliamentarians are elected in first-past-the-post balloting in single-member constituencies, and 25 per cent are elected by proportional representation based on party lists.

Secondly, in the event of a close result between the centre-right and centre-left electoral blocs, the winning coalition would receive a "bonus" of seats, strengthening its ability to govern with a stable majority.

The winning coalition would be guaranteed at least 340 seats in the 630-seat lower house of parliament, and 170 seats in the 315-seat upper house.

The opposition objects to the 4 per cent threshold because it could penalise small centre-left parties unlikely to exceed that limit. By contrast, all the main parties in Mr Berlusconi's coalition stand a good chance of fulfilling the 4 per cent requirement.

The centre-left's chances of winning the election would be damaged if millions of votes for small centre-left parties did not translate into seats in parliament.

So, this is how Berlusconi runs his "democracy", if he looks like he is going to lose, he changes the rules of the game. Will he succeed?

Considerable doubts surround the government's ability to pass the reform, because it is uncertain whether the Union of Christian Democrats, a moderate party in Mr Berlusconi's coalition, is fully behind it.

If anyone in Italy, or is familiar with what is going on there, it would be great to hear your perspectives on this.

Talk about doing just about anything to stay in power...Berlusconi is a weasel.

"Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia
by whataboutbob on Thu Sep 15th, 2005 at 11:47:53 AM EST
Bonus?! uuh, can't the EU do something about that? As for the other reforms - obviously self-interested but nothing inherently anti-democratic about them. I personally favour thresholds in PR systems and I am agnostic on single member vs. PR in general.  

Btw, a little historical flashback. In the eighties Mitterand briefly changed the system to PR with the idea of preventing a right wing majority or making it dependent on the Front National which generally can't get into parliament with single member seats. There's a reason why one of his nicknames was 'Le Florentin'

by MarekNYC on Thu Sep 15th, 2005 at 04:48:10 PM EST
Europe seriously needs a constitution...
by asdf on Thu Sep 15th, 2005 at 05:14:23 PM EST
The pure proportional system of the so-called First Republic was trashed in the 1993 referendum by an overwhelming majority. Clean Hands was in full swing and all the parties that owed their "raison d'etre" and their inordinate power to the Cold War simply crumbled into splinter groups. Parliament could do little else but bow to popular dictate and create the present hybrid majoritarian system with a pinch of proportional.

Regardless of all its shortcomings, the electoral reform of 1994 ushered in the second republic and has since been the rule of the game.

Berlusconi's attempt to change the rules of the game at the eighty-ninth minute is beyond contempt. Disregarding the fawning blither of his peons, outrage is unanimous. Berlusconi has been decisively thrashed in every election held recently with the amusing exception of Catania. Despite his continuous losses and his coalition in shambles, he has never contemplated resigning.

Given the disastrous state of the Italian economy, Ciampi had expressed the wish to have early elections by February 2006 so that a new government with a fresh mandate could take the necessary and drastic measures that Berlusconi is anthropologically incapable of handling. Berlusconi will have none of that and intends to exploit what little time is left to shove through his destructive and self-serving reforms. Since he has a solid majority of faceless button-pushers that he keeps in line with gold rolexes, his "reforms" may actually become law.

At the same time he is personally obliged to stay in power, if nothing more for the numerous criminal trials that await him both in Italy and Spain. (Chirac is on the same sort of boat, too.)

There would be two major consequences if his electoral reform bill were to pass as is. In a poll published today by la Repubblica based on 1000 voters' preferences, the left was favoured by 55%. Under the actual law, the left would have 363 deputies to the rights' 263 deputies. Under the proposed law the winning majority would have 290 deputies to the losers' 340 deputies. I hope that makes sense.

The second consequence would be a weak government incapable of expressing a durable political agenda. A government continually held at bay by party bosses and backroom power bases, much like the first republic. The left has promised to repeal the worst of Berlusconi's laws once in power. Fat chance if this electoral law passes.

by de Gondi (publiobestia aaaatttthotmaildaughtusual) on Thu Sep 15th, 2005 at 05:49:25 PM EST
Excellent commentary. Please write more in the near future.

"Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia
by whataboutbob on Fri Sep 16th, 2005 at 03:37:56 AM EST
[ Parent ]
This will be a technical comment to help explain the arcanes of the proposed bill and how it is tailor made to screw the Left.

One of the merits of the Left in general is the multiplicity of different voices. It's a sign of vitality, of novel proposals and a desire to participate. But when it comes to the political arena with its ritual of periodical elections, this fragmentation is a handicap. In decades of proportional voting in Italy, the left had the rare opportunity to be a nebulous of small parties, since it was condemned by the Cold War to be the eternal opposition. Conversely, the Democrat Christians were condemned to rule until the wall came down. And both political blocks new well that neither could exist without the other.

Unlike the Right, the new Italian Left continues to be split into small parties. The Right coalition consists of four parties: the UDC (ex-conservative DC), the racist Lega Nord, Allianza Nazionale (born from the thighs of democratic fascism), and Berlusconi's personal political entity, Forza Italia.

The Left coalition consists of three major political parties: the DS (ex-Italian Communist Party), the Margherita (a centrist civic party), and Rifondazione (a dissident off-shot of the ex-PCI). The coalition also includes another six parties: the Green party, a couple of socialist parties, an ex-left DC party,  Di Pietro's civic party and something called la Sbarbati.

In the 2001 elections that brought Berlusconi to power, the left had the majority vote but two crucial parties had elected to run alone (Di Pietro and Rifondazione) thus subtracting vital votes from the Left coalition.

In the coming election all nine parties are running in the same coalition not only to win but to have representation in parliament. Under the present law, there is a 4% threshold for the House of Deputies (not the Senate). However if a small party that has no possibility of reaching 4% nationally but can be crucial in a particular local election, it has bargaining power within the coalition. In short, all these little parties are going to send their Mr. Smith to Rome, if the Left coalition wins.

Under Berlusconi's proposed bill, any single party within a coalition that has less than 4% nationally cannot have representation. All four parties of the Right coalition are likely to garner enough votes to beat the threshold. None of the six minor parties on the left will ever get more than 2,5%. However their combined votes exceed 10%.

So there's the mathematics. If the left wins 55% of the vote, at least 10% gets thrown out. That means ten percent of the voting population has no right to representation. That makes it neck to neck with Berlusconi a possible winner. Since the "winning" coalition gets a premium of seats that explains the numbers in my previous comment.

There is also the question of the Italian electorate abroad. If I'm correct they vote for six senators and six deputies. Berlusconi passed the Mirko Tremaglia law that allowed them to vote abroad as described in a post over at Booman. Given Berlusconi's control over the Italian community press abroad, and his phenomenal capacity to butter people up with empty promises, he's likely to gain all twelve seats. He is just back from NYC where I'm quite sure he did a lot of baby-hugging between shady deals.

President Ciampi made a pointed speech yesterday against the temptation to return to the past. Nostalgia blinds us to the fact that the past is always worse, and we should only look to build a future, he said.

The proposed bill may be presented in parliament as early as September 29th.

by de Gondi (publiobestia aaaatttthotmaildaughtusual) on Fri Sep 16th, 2005 at 04:55:20 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I agree, and personally find it scandalous that
the referendum results are being even more thoroughly
flouted than before, when the professional pols at least had to seem to do something in tune with the clear expression of public opinion in the referendum.

     I think that it's likely that a majority of Italians would prefer major responsibility for individual representatives, not, as de Gondi observes, the "eternal" power brokers who are nested within the apparatus of the various parties.  In this regard, the direct election of mayors (for "sufficiently large" cities) is a major success, and, one hopes, a training ground for future
prime ministers.

Hannah K. O'Luthon

by Hannah K OLuthon on Fri Sep 16th, 2005 at 01:05:40 AM EST

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