Secret vote stifles Renzi’s reforms

By Mattia Guidi
16 June 2017
Italy Italy
Batting down an amendment in the lower chamber, the Italian parliament has put plans for a new electoral system on hold
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At the start of last week, everybody expected a new electoral system – one based on proportional representation with a 5% threshold to enter parliament – to be passed into law by the Italian lower chamber. The deal looked strong, backed by the country’s four largest parties (the Democratic party, Five Star Movement, Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, and the Northern League), who together constitute 70% of MPs.

However an amendment proposed by the centre-right Forza Italia party, which raised the possibility of applying the new electoral law in the northern autonomous region of Trentino Alto Adige, passed to the surprise of observers after a vote in the lower chamber. Despite the overwhelming majority of MPs apparently opposed to the amendment, the secret ballot, which the Italian lower chamber still permits in certain cases, approved the change.

Since there were further secret ballot amendments scheduled, and this supposed majority has proven itself to be unreliable, the Democratic Party (PD) requested, and obtained, permission to suspend the procedure and return to the committee. This means that the discussion with other parties could still be resumed if a new agreement is found, but also that the law may never reach the lower chamber again.

Who is to blame for this failure? The secret ballot, by definition, makes it impossible to know how MPs voted, but it is evident that some parties did not do their best to honour the deal. The amendment on which the entire deal collapsed had been presented, in a similar form, by a Forza Italia MP and by the Five Star Movement. The simple act of proposing it in the lower chamber, where a secret ballot is permitted, made amendments that had been rejected in the committee examination possible, and put the deal in danger. The incident could have occurred at any time.

The PD, which did not propose any amendment, still had problems with some aspects of the system. The PD has never been in favour of a proportional representation system, which makes unstable – and unnatural – coalitions more likely. The PD had initially proposed a return to the 1993 electoral system, a mixed one largely based (75% of the seats) on first-past-the-post. But since none of the other parties supports a majoritarian system, the PD accepted a proportional system, provided that it had at least a few conditions: the 5% threshold, and one third of MPs elected in single-member districts – similar to the German system.

Matteo Renzi, the former prime minister, had given the deal a green light, believing that the downsides of the system were compensated by the fact that, for the first time in decades, a new electoral system would be approved by a large majority − a system that almost every party could recognise as its own. But many around the PD, including ‘founding fathers’ like Romano Prodi and Walter Veltroni, had been critical of a system that seemed to make a grand coalition with Berlusconi inevitable and dismissed the prospect of a centre-left alliance. Sure, the system would have ensured that the PD was necessary for every government coalition (like Angela Merkel’s CDU/CSU in Germany), but was this worth the price?

The failure of the deal changes the medium-term perspective of the PD. Had the new electoral system been approved quickly and without incident, snap elections at the end of September would have been a likely scenario − and many believe the main reason MPs rejected the agreement in the secret ballot was the fear of a snap vote.

Now, the odds of elections at the end of the current parliamentary term, February 2018, have strongly increased. But with which electoral system? Italy currently has two different systems: one for the lower chamber and one for the senate. The president of the republic, Sergio Mattarella, has repeatedly asked the parliament to at least make the two systems more consistent. While both are proportional, they differ in many respects: the lower chamber system has a 3% threshold while the senate system has one of 8%; the lower chamber gives the party that receives 40% of the votes a ‘majority prize’ which awards them 54% of the seats, while nothing of this kind exists at the senate; the lower chamber system does not allow for coalitions while the senate system does – and so forth.

Even an agreement on a few changes is more demanding than it seems, and uncertainty remains high. The PD and other parties, apparently, do not rule out reaching a new deal. But Renzi has also declared he is ready for an election under the existing laws. In that case, reviving a centre-left coalition, including smaller parties to the left and right of the PD, may be useful to try to reach a stable majority. Although this remains very difficult. The Italian political system remains trapped in a never-ending transition, where the point of arrival is still unknown. This makes it very hard for every party, and for a large force like the PD in particular, to develop a clear and consistent strategy.

Image credit: Marco Iacobucci EPP/