Reforming the Electoral Law

Reforming the Electoral Law: From the Mattarellum to the Proportionellum
There are, generally speaking, two main factors which, over the long term,
have shaped or reinforced the proportional mentality of politicians and
parties and led them to oppose any move away from proportionality in the
electoral law. The first, recalled by the older generation of politicians, was
the fascist so-called Acerbo Law (from the name of the Minister of the
Interior who drafted it), although it is easily forgotten that its introduction
occurred in a situation that was no longer democratic.2 The second was the
legge truffa (‘swindle law’), whose approval in 1953 was fought against not
only by the left, but from inside other parties too. Indeed, opposition to the
bill from within parties such as the Liberals (PLI) and Social Democrats
(PSDI) caused internal divisions that took away a decisive number of votes,
depriving the centrist coalition of an absolute majority and, hence, the
possibility of a majority bonus of seats.
Yet it was not difficult to find party convenience hiding behind these
convictions. All of the parties wanted, above all, to retain their electoral
following. They were all risk averse and proportional representation (PR)
provided them with an appropriate safety net. Arguments about the
technical and democratic superiority of PR were reinforced by the apparent
more extensive representation of socio-political preferences it provided.
Some went as far as to argue that PR was the only electoral law appropriate
to democratic regimes. Small wonder, therefore, that it took the power of
voters to change things. The 1991 referendum which removed the system of
preferences opened the way, and the 1993 referendum, which repealed key
aspects of the PR law for the Senate, obliged parliamentarians to draft two
new laws (for the Senate and the House – although the latter was not
compulsory) to be compatible and in keeping with the spirit of that vote.3
The outcome was a peculiar electoral system combining plurality and
proportional elements that was derisively dubbed by Giovanni Sartori as the
Utilised in three subsequent elections (1994, 1996, 2001), the new electoral
system did not, as other mixed systems are alleged to, represent ‘the best of
both worlds’.4 On the contrary, it seemed to combine some of the worst
aspects of the proportional and plurality worlds. The existence of 475 singlemember
constituencies for the House and 238 single-member constituencies
for the Senate made the construction of all-encompassing coalitions an
imperative. As a consequence, even the smallest of parties and groups could
become relevant, if not indispensable; and, of course, they were always
ready to use their blackmailing power to obtain, in exchange, some safe
seats. Inevitably, therefore, both coalitions proved to be very heterogeneous
and, once in parliament and government, conflict-ridden. Regarding the
party system, its fragmentation was not reduced, but exacerbated, if not
outright frozen: because of the proportional component of the new electoral
system (especially in the House of Deputies), most of the parties
Institutional Reforms in Italy 675
(particularly the major ones) presented their symbols and candidates, thus
constantly placing emphasis on their specific ‘identities’ and therefore failing
to contribute to the consolidation of the coalitions.
The Mattarellum was criticised from two perspectives. On the one hand,
there were those (such as Sartori, Pasquino and aminority of politicians) who
favoured shifting the system further in a majoritarian direction through the
introduction of the French run-off second ballot majority system. On the
other hand, there were many ‘proportionalists’ who opposed any moves
towards a non-proportional system, some of whom were to be found in the
ranks of Forza Italia (FI) and the Left Democrats (DS), but primarily
amongst the former Christian Democrats, who were spread across various
parties (but primarily concentrated in the UDC). The proportionalists had
their way. First, they managed to defeat two successive referenda (1999 and
2000), which would have had the effect of creating a majoritarian electoral
system, by campaigning for abstention and not going to the polls, with the
outcome that the rate of participation did reach the quorum (50 per cent plus
one). Second, at the point at which, in late 2005, it seemed clear that the Casa
delle Liberta` was going to lose the 2006 elections, and with the other parties of
the coalition all seeking aspects of institutional reform to be included in the
coalition’s constitutional reform bill, the UDC managed to extract from an
all too willing Berlusconi a return to proportionality in a new electoral law.
The central component of the new law is a majority bonus to be given to
the coalition of parties that receives the highest number of votes, provided it
is over 25 per cent. This bonus has been instrumental in reinforcing the
incentive to form coalitions, thus maintaining bipolar competition. The law
was vehemently opposed by the centre-left because it assumed that the effect
would be either to prevent its expected electoral victory or to reduce its size.
Romano Prodi went as far as to declare the new law ‘anti-democratic,
unconstitutional, unpatriotic’ (as reported in most Italian newspapers). In
fact, the new law did not prevent a centre-left victory; nor, at the general
level, did it negatively affect the size of its majority. However, the manner in
which the seat bonus was allocated for the election to the Senate did help
produce a razor-thin majority there.
What is apparent now is that the electoral law remains an obscure object
of desire (Pasquino 1989) or, as once put (verbally to Pasquino) by the late
Paolo Ungari (constitutional scholar), ‘an object of obscure desires’. From
Maurice Duverger to Giovanni Sartori, most scholars would agree that
electoral systems shape the political and, even more, party arena, and
exercise more than a minor influence on the way governments are formed.
For this reason alone, the debate over the electoral system in Italy will
continue, and it is unsurprising that the Prodi government has committed
itself to drafting a new electoral law. The electoral system, moreover, finds
itself in a kind of chicken-and-egg situation with broader institutional
reform. On the one hand, it is difficult to secure agreement on constitutional
reform in the absence of broad agreement on a new electoral law; on the
676 M. Bull and G. Pasquino
other hand, in situations where the constitutional arrangements themselves
are still in question, one can expect the electoral system to be always in flux
because of its central role in those arrangements. Put another way, as long
as the Prodi government and the partners of the centre-left coalition do not
have a shared vision of a broader constitutional reform, their task of
reforming the electoral system will be all the more difficult.
Strengthening the Prime Minister and Reforming ‘Symmetric Bicameralism

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