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Electoral reform for Italy

Rome, 17/04/2013, National Roundtable

In this national roundtable session devoted to examining the nature of electoral reform required in Italy, the opening premise to the discussions was that modern debate on this issue primarily hinges on a straightforward question, namely: does the state of the electorate directly mirror the prevailing electoral system, or does the latter have little impact on the outcome of elections and associated divisions within the electorate? This quandary is by no means new, stemming originally from widely-held misgivings regarding the fitness for purpose of the so-called “Porcellum” (or very loosely: pig’s dinner) electoral law of 2005, and thrown into sharp relief over the last two months by the difficulty that have emerged in analyzing the results of the election conducted on February 24-25, 2013. Serving as a backdrop to this scenario has been the gradual disintegration of bipolar politics – the product of Italy’s Second Republic – and the new division of the electorate along tripolar lines, with all that entails in terms of the governability of the country, and in what is increasingly shaping up as the worst democratic, economic and social crisis in the history of the Republic.

The participants pointed to the near predominantly-held view that this crisis may have been exacerbated by inadequate or Byzantine rules of engagement with the electorate: Byzantine since, for instance, they in fact lay down two distinct sets of electoral rules for the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, despite the fact that co-equal bicameralism is enshrined in the Italian Constitution; and inadequate because, in an age increasingly marked by widening democratic participation, fixed party lists seem regressive, depriving citizens of their right to choose and only partially “mitigated” by impromptu (and partial) voting mechanisms devised by some political forces – ranging from primary elections to online balloting – to get around the lists.

More generally, the debate over what kind of electoral reform would help overcome the impasse that currently seems to have ensnared the Italian system spills over into questions concerning the country’s political culture. All the great tomes on constitutional law agree that the way in which institutions function is directly linked to the political culture that underpins them, with a case in point being the different forms manifested by the presidential system in North versus South America. Yet there is no doubt that the institutional and political chaos caused by the recent election results can also be read as reflecting a culture that has for years struggled to reconcile deliberative democracy, accountable leadership, representativeness, and the co-assertion of sovereignty by different levels of government (local, national, and supranational).

With a view to achieving this end, it was felt that Italian electoral law should no longer be seen as the cause (or effect) of all the existing problems, but should instead be added to the list of systemic elements requiring reform in order to ensure the stability of Italian democracy (along with the functioning of political parties, parliamentary rules, and the relationship between different levels of government, for instance).

The participants stressed that whatever solution is settled on to break the impasse – whether that be a return to the hybrid first-past-the-post/proportional system compensated by a “proportional recuperation quotient” (or scorporo) introduced by the “Mattarella Law” of 1993 (as recommended in the proposal by the so-called “wise men” appointed by President Napolitano), or a model closer to that operating in Germany – there are two objectives in particular that need to be pursued. These are, on the one hand, governability, for which the commercial and productive spheres grappling with an unprecedented recession are clamoring, and on the other, more compelling representativeness, deemed essential to rein in the inclination to bow to populist pressures, and to assuage calls for direct democracy coming from large segments of the population. It was observed, in conclusion, that over the past twenty years, no Italian electoral system has managed to ensure the pursuit of both of these goals. Achieving these no-longer postponable priorities has therefore become imperative, failing which, the definitive disintegration of a never before so shaky and precarious political and institutional framework is assured.