Andrew Duff -  On Governing Europe

The Camera dei Deputati has just voted (12 March), by 365 to 156, after 36 hours of debate, to reform Italy’s electoral law. Followers of Italian politics may jump with joy, because the current electoral system – nicknamed Porcellum (pigsty) – is a significant cause of the country’s perennial instability and economic weakness. But the new system needs careful examination before Evviva!

Modern European standards in electoral law and practice suggest, first, that seats won in a parliament should broadly match the votes cast in the ballot box. Second, electoral participation is strengthened where the voter can express an individual preference for a candidate with which he or she can easily identify. And, third, thresholds to exclude minorities, if they continue to exist, should be low. Even ‘Vlad the Bad’ Putin has lowered the threshold in Russia from 7% to 5%, although democracy in oriental Turkey is still hampered by having an electoral threshold of 10%. For the elections to the European Parliament, thresholds may not exceed 5%. The Bundesverfassungsgericht, by the way, has just abolished the German threshold for the European elections entirely.

Europe is becoming more pluralist and democratic. Electoral practices which were put in place in the shadow of Europe’s totalitarian age are anachronistic. Europe is also becoming more interdependent in constitutional terms, especially within the EU. What happens where domestic constitutional changes go wrong, as in Hungary, matters to the EU as a whole. As fellow EU citizens, we have a right to make our voice heard if democracy and respect for civil liberties are not everywhere reinforced.

So what has happened in Italy? Italicum, the proposed new system of prime minister Matteo Renzi is aimed at driving out the smaller minority parties and at producing a bipolar system of left and right. The first party winning 37% of the vote receives a prize of up to 15% extra seats to allow it to assemble a majority of 340 seats in the chamber (55% of the total seats). That arbitrary figure of 37% happens to be where the potential coalitions of both centre left and centre right stand now in the opinion polls.

The threshold for coalitions of parties is 12%, but every member of the coalition has to reach 4.5% in order to have their votes counted at all. Single parties have to cross a threshold of 8%. If no party or coalition reaches the magic 37%, the leading two coalitions or parties will go into a second round to fight for the precious ‘majority prize’.

Italy will be divided into a maximum of 120 constituencies, but seats are only to be allocated from short closed party lists on the basis not of the local vote but of the total national vote. These fictive constituencies have two consequences: first, regional parties are disadvantaged and, second, the link between the citizen and the deputy is at best indirect and imperceptible, and at worst random.

The funny thing about this stitch-up between Renzi and Silvio Berlusconi is that Italy’s Constitutional Court has already condemned, in previous judgments on electoral law, both the majority prize and the closed block lists. What the Consulta will do next is anyone’s guess, but if it wishes to intervene it will surely have the jurisprudential backing of both the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights on the matter of fair and equal franchise.

In conclusion, what Italicum amounts to is a fake proportional system. Smaller parties, a plethora of which Italy has enjoyed for decades, are to be used as a trampoline on which the big bosses of bipolarismo will bounce around.

Oh, and for the record, there are at the moment three and not two non-small political parties: Renzi’s PD at about 30%, Berlusconi’s Forza Italia at 23% and Beppe Grillo’s M5S at 21%.

Italicum now passes to the Senate, in which Renzi has a thinner majority and which he plans to abolish. The Senate itself is not touched by Italicum, but it will have to decide whether to approve a controversial reform which will, in effect, make Italy a rival with the United Kingdom for the prize of having the worst electoral system in Europe. Evviva indeed.

Andrew Duff MEP is the European Parliament’s rapporteur on electoral issues.

Author :