Italian ruling coalition on the brink - again. But don't blame PR.

by Jack Santucci // Published May 19, 2006
There's a good post and discussion at Fruits & Votes on the extent to which Italy's new electoral system is a proportional one. Policy-makers re-engineer electoral systems to achieve desired political ends. In Italy's case, the desired end frequently has been more stable coalitions. Late last year, that country abolished a decade-old system of 75% single-member districts in favor of a hybrid system intended to foster growth of fewer, bigger and stronger parties. Counterintuitively, the SMD system had not done so. This new system awards a 55% majority of seats to the pre-election coalition winning a plurality of votes. Within the coalitions, however, seats are allocated proportionally by party.

Yet ANSA, The Times and Business Day are all covering what could be doom for Prodi's coalition, which would have lasted barely a month.

According to ANSA:

The premier also said he planned to overturn Berlusconi's electoral reform law which returned the country to full proportional representation .

The reform has left Prodi more exposed to the demands of smaller parties in his nine-way coalition which ranges from Communists and anti-clericalists to staunch Catholics.

But Prodi's alliance has come under pressure from the hard left to pull troops out immediately, and he will have to attempt to do so with a majority of just two senators in the upper house.

The senate will vote on the Iraq proposal on Friday and if il professsore loses, Prodi's new government will be forced to resign.

Yesterday I suggested that policy outcomes - not seat allocation outcomes - provide a more substantive way to evaluate this electoral system. I suggested Italian leaders still would have trouble enforcing party discipline because, even though parties run in pre-election coalitions, the ballot lists the parties, not the coalition. That is, voters vote for the parties, not the coalitions. That is, parties still have an incentive to differentiate themselves once in the legislature.

Toronto Star:

Assigning seats to individual parties, by their proportion of the vote, will make these coalitions more unruly, Panebianco argued in an interview. "There are serious doubts about whether any coalition will be able to govern."

Pasquino believes governing will be especially difficult for the centre-left, with twice as many parties in its coalition as Berlusconi's alliance, and greater ideological tensions.

Following last month's election, pundits wondered whether the far left would behave as it did in the past.


The leading Italian daily, La Republicca, has on its website a complete breakdown of the vote by party, which you can read by clicking here. It reveals that the moderate parties in Prodi's center-left Unione coalition did better than the alliance's more radical elements. But Prodii's radical ally, the Rifondazione Comunista, with 41 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, still will have more than enough to bring down the expected Prodi-led government should it choose to do so -- just as it did the last time Prodi was prime minister over programmatic differences.

Lo and behold, it is doing just so. Plus ca change.

Detractors of proportional voting hold Italy's coalition instability up as an example of why the United States should steer clear. It's an unfair conclusion based on an example that does not generalize to America. Some key points separate Italy from the United States:

1) Survivial of the executive in America is not directly linked to the cohesion of any caucus in Congress. Both of Italy's executives - Prime Minister and President - are creatures of the legislature. Our President is the creature of a wholly separate election, and he/she is not susceptible to votes of no confidence.

2) We have gone two centuries without disciplined parties.

3) Our system of single-member plurality districts reinforces an ingrained two-party system. The almost infinite potential designs of proportional systems mean an American one does not have to spell the death of our two-party system.

4) Italy's experiment with 75% single-member plurality districts (1994-2005) was intended to streamline the system and foster party aggregation. It still produced unstable coalition governments. The far left still was a deal-breaker.

Unstable coalitions in Italy are not the product of proportional representation broadly understood. A mostly winner-take-all system resulted in similar outcomes. Other factors are far more important: well known regionalism, an uncompromising streak in Italian politics.

If Italy wants stabler governments and fewer, more broad-based parties, it needs to consider reforms: an independent, popularly elected executive; a more extensive system of rewards and punishments that coalition leaders can use to enforce discipline. At the electoral level, it seems like Italy needs to set an unprecedentedly high threshold. The regionalism means multi-member districts of low magnitude won't create more stable governments. If Italy values coalition stability, it needs to render small parties electorally impotent. It needs to make space for large parties of national appeal only.