Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Italian electoral system: how the "Porcellum" works

Some of you might still be puzzled by the political stall that resulted in Italy following the general election. This is due to several factors; one of them, as I already wrote, I think is the fact that the Democratic Party 's candidate was not someone like Matteo Renzi, and a lot of people who wanted some new faces ended up voting for Beppe Grillo. Another factor is Berlusconi's return, since he still has a lot of fans who will remain faithful to him, no matter what.

But the main cause for this mess is, according to many, the Italian electoral system.

I already wrote a post about this several months ago, when the media and every political party discussed the possibility of electoral reform. Possibility that, nevertheless, never came true.

So, in the last election, we still voted with our current electoral system. I have never heard a single person claiming that this is a good system. The "ten wise men" appointed by President Napolitano keep repeating that their priority must be an electoral reform. What we all wonder is why they have not done it yet if they really wanted to, since this could easily have been done during the last year of Monti's government.

The current system is generally known as "porcellum", which means "pig" in Latin. It was renamed by political analyst Giovanni Sartori, after being defined "porcata" by Roberto Calderoli, member of the Northern League and Minister who wrote the law during the last Berlusconi’s government. "Porcata" is a noun which more or less could be translated as "something so bad that it could have been made by a pig”. Rubbish, in other words.

Roberto Calderoli

The current electoral system is a variant of proportional representation, usually known as “party-list proportional representation”. In this system, it is up to the parties to make a list of the candidates that might be elected, and seats are allocated to each party in proportion to the number of votes the party gets. However, the Italian system ensures a “plurality bonus" for the party, or coalition, which gets the greatest number of votes. In other words, over 50% of seats are ensured for the first winning party (or coalition), even if that party got, let's say, 30% of votes, and this implies that the system loses much in terms of proportionality.

The system has closed lists: voters cannot express their preferences for candidates, all the choices are made by the parties. Because of this, Parliament is filled with people who would have never been re-elected if the choice were left to voters.

But what caused the chaos we are witnessing now is the fact that the voting system differs for the two chambers of Parliament: in the lower chamber, the Chamber of Deputies, seats are allocated on a national basis; but in the upper house, the Senate, seats are allocated only on a regional basis, and this turns Lombardy, the most populated region, in a sort of "Italian Ohio". This also means that the system is quite biased in favour of the Northern League, that is very strong in Lombardy. Plus, whereas the threshold in the lower chamber is 4% for single lists and 10% for coalitions, in the Senate it is 8% for single lists and 20% for coalitions.

In other words, it is really difficult for a party to secure a majority in both chambers and, considering the perfectly equal distribution of powers between chambers in Italy, this can be a real issue. This is why Bersani failed to form a government: he had a majority in the lower chamber but, because of the different counting system, he did not have one in the Senate.

Now, we are all waiting to find out whether the "ten wise men" will actually suggest an electoral reform and, if they do, how the new system will look like.