Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The deeper malaise that bedevils the Italian electoral system

Today's FT publishes a letter written by David Hine, Alan Renwick and me, on the issue of the Italian electoral system, recently the object of much debate:

Sir, Alexander Stille's analysis of Italy's current troubles focuses on the electoral reform rushed in by Silvio Berlusconi ahead of last spring's election ("Prodi and the problem of Italy's electoral system", February 23). He calls it proportional representation. It isn't. In the lower house it gives a working majority to the coalition with the largest national vote share. In the Senate, there are also bonuses, but they are allocated regionally and the outcome is a lottery.

The problem with the recent reform is the same as with its 1993 predecessor. In trying to create majoritarian coalitions, it creates an irresistible incentive to cram in the most improbable range of parties, giving everyone a post-election veto: a fatal combination of apparent bipolarity built on a sub-structure of extreme party fragmentation.

Recommending the abolition of PR will not fix anything until that deeper problem is addressed. After the 1993 reform, the small parties won their seats in the 75 per cent of contests that were allocated under first-past-the-post principles, not in those allocated by PR. It happened because the larger parties felt forced to widen the coalition through stand-down agreements. A similar incentive operated under the 2005 "return to PR", albeit by a different route.

Interestingly, the electoral system that small parties seem most afraid of is the French second ballot, perhaps modified to prevent second-ballot stand-downs. The run-off, as with the French presidency, would then be just between the two leading candidates from the first ballot. Nothing else has done the trick, and there are few options left.


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