Italicum: what price are Italians ready to pay to achieve governability and democracy?


Giulia Pastorella is a PhD candidate at the European Institute, London School of Economics. She tweets @giuliapastorell

Italy adopted last week its new electoral law, Italicum, which will enter into force in July 2016. It was one of the many reforms announced by centre-left Prime Minister Matteo Renzi when he was appointed in February 2014. The aim of this new electoral law is to provide more governability and democracy. It might partially achieve the former, but nowhere near the latter.

While the nuances of Italicum are beyond the scope of this article, the essence of the law is that it assigns a majority block of seats in Parliament to whichever list[1] gets more than 40% of the national votes[2]. If no list achieves 40% in the first round, there is a second round between the first two lists. The winner of the second round receives the majority prize regardless of the votes obtained. This mechanism should ensure a better governability by providing a strong majority while maintaining the democratic qualities of proportional representation. It also encourages democracy by giving voice to smaller parties and thus offering the voter potentially more choices at the poll.

In each constituency, the top candidate for each list will be determined by the list itself, and “blocked”. So if the list at national level gets enough votes, that candidate will automatically go to Rome. The remaining contesters for each list have to be of alternate genders, so one woman, one man, one woman and so on down the candidate list. Voters will be allowed to pick their preferred candidates, but have to respect gender equality in their choices too: one man and one woman. It is a decision that encountered initial opposition. It was rejected in a secret vote in the first reading on the grounds that it was not ensuring that women would become MPs, but only that their names would be on the district list. The law was then modified to include a provision whereby each list will have to present at least 40% of women top candidates, thus obtaining the support of the majority. This “pink” quota is a welcomed measure in what remains a sexist political culture.

There are aspects of the new system that might allow for more governability, but certainly less democracy. A new parliament under Italicum rule will look as follows: Parliament will be an all powerful single chamber since the Senate is being turned into an unelected chamber of representatives of the regions, with reduced legislative powers. It will be dominated by an all-powerful Prime Minister, voted in office potentially by a minority of Italians: because of the two rounds system, the governing party that gets the majority prize might have the support of just 15% of the national votes. The Prime Minister will be able to choose almost single-handedly the Head of State. He will be surrounded by MPs selected as heads of the constituency lists to be loyal, effectively disciplined party soldiers. The voting mechanism for selecting these candidates is also problematic, as they can run in more than one constituency. This has the obvious democratic shortcoming that they can decide strategically, if elected in more than one constituency, which one to actually represent. Too bad for voters who thought they had voted them into power.

It is laudable that Italy strives to have governability and majoritarian laws, hoping to achieve some sort of bipolarity. But Italicum does not seem to be the appropriate means to this end. It was supposed to ensure that the majority prize is given to a party that enjoys the confidence of enough citizens, and that citizens have the ability to choose their preferred candidates in their constituencies. It has achieved only partly the latter, and even less the former. One wonders whether a balance between democracy and governability will ever be possible in Italy.

[1] A list can be either a single party or a coalition of parties. It is formed before elections, and presents a single list of candidates in each of the constituencies. A list is also, confusingly, the list of candidates presented by each list in each constituency.

[2] Porcellum assigned the prize to the party obtaining more votes with no minimum required.

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