Facebook Blogging

Edward Hugh has a lively and enjoyable Facebook community where he publishes frequent breaking news economics links and short updates. If you would like to receive these updates on a regular basis and join the debate please invite Edward as a friend by clicking the Facebook link at the top of the right sidebar.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Italy's 2008 election paradox: a likely winner, an uncertain outcome

by Manuel Alvarez-Rivera, Puerto Rico

Just two years after having taken part in a general election, voters in Italy will be back to the polls next Sunday and Monday, to cast ballots in an early parliamentary election triggered by the collapse of Romano Prodi's center-left coalition government last January. A total of 158 parties have been authorized to take part in the election, running in thirty-five tickets in Italy proper.

Nonetheless, only four groups (plus regional parties representing German- and French-speaking minorities in Trentino-Alto Adige and Valle d'Aosta, respectively) appear likely to secure parliamentary representation: the right-of-center coalition formed by the new People of Freedom (which brings together former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi's own Forza Italia party, the post-fascist National Alliance and several minor right-wing parties) with the Northern League and the Movement for Autonomy; the center-left coalition of the Democratic Party (the largest party in Prodi's outgoing government, led by former Rome mayor Walter Veltroni) and Italy of Values; the Rainbow Left alliance formed by the Communist Refoundation Party, the Party of Italian Communists and the Federation of Greens; and the center-right Union of Christian Democrats and Center Democrats, formerly allied to Berlusconi but running independently this time as the Center Union, in coalition with minor centrist parties.

The last opinion polls in late March - Italian law forbids their publication fifteen days before the election - had Berlusconi's People of Freedom coalition well ahead of Veltroni's Democratic Party-led coalition, and it appears likely that the center-right parties will secure a clear majority in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Italy's bicameral legislature: under the existing proportional representation with majority prize electoral system - reviewed in more detail in Elections to the Italian Parliament - the coalition polling the largest number of votes receives approximately 55% of Chamber seats.

However, the outcome of the election remains uncertain because unlike in other European countries, governments in Italy need a majority in both houses of Parliament to stay in office, and in the Senate - where the distribution of seats and majority prizes takes place on a regional basis - it is far from clear that Berlusconi and his allies will score a clear victory, as detailed in Italy’s upcoming election: another parliamentary stalemate in the making?, on A Fistful of Euros.

The unremarkable election campaign has generated comparatively little voter enthusiasm, partly because the two major coalitions offer similar promises - lower taxes and public spending cuts - but largely because of the widespread perception that Italy's political class appears incapable of dealing effectively with the country's mounting political and economic problems. The Italian economy has practically slowed down to a halt, and in a development widely perceived as symptomatic of the country's ills, Alitalia - Italy's national airline - is teetering on the verge of collapse after unions rejected a takeover bid by the Air France-KLM group.

Meanwhile, in the political arena Italy remains saddled with an electoral system that has done little to promote governmental stability, fostering instead party fragmentation - a chronic problem in postwar Italy - and forcing parties into unwieldy coalition arrangements that remain geared to win elections first and then sort out policy differences among numerous - and often fickle - coalition partners. There were no fewer than nine parties in Romano Prodi's outgoing center-left cabinet, and the sudden withdrawal of the coalition's smallest partner, the centrist UDEUR - which won only 1.4% of the vote in 2006 - was enough to bring his government down earlier this year.

(Incidentally, the move proved fatal to UDEUR, as the party - subsequently rejected as a potential coalition partner by left, right and center alike, and racked by numerous defections - has practically self-destructed since Prodi's fall.)

To be certain, the electoral coalitions running in this year's election won't be as cumbersome as in 2006, when most parties lined up behind either Berlusconi or Prodi, but even this development has introduced an unexpected complication: under current electoral regulations, coalition partners have their party logos placed next to one another in election ballots (whereas logos for parties running alone are spaced apart), and it is feared many electors could accidentally void their vote if they place a cross between the logos of coalition parties (instead of voting for a specific party within their coalition of choice). Consequently, there have been calls to redesign the ballots (mainly from Berlusconi and his allies), but the government has insisted it is following the same rules established by Berlusconi's previous administration for the preceding election - which had the lowest invalid vote total in decades.

That said, a greater concern is the possibility that the election may result in opposite majorities in the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies, which would make it impossible for either of the two major groups to govern alone. Of course, should that come to pass the obvious solution would be a grand coalition government, and there has been considerable speculation about such an arrangement, which has come to be dubbed the "Veltrusconi" (that is, Veltroni plus Berlusconi). However, Veltroni has expressly ruled out that prospect so far - possibly because any serious discussion of the matter at this juncture could be interpreted as an implicit admission of defeat.

It's also possible that - like Prodi in 2006 - Berlusconi may end up with a fragile Senate majority (while firmly in control of the Chamber of Deputies). Moreover, even if the center-right coalition were to secure an overall majority in both houses of Parliament, it's by no means certain that Berlusconi's People of Freedom would win an absolute majority in both chambers, and the Northern League (which has advocated the separation of wealthier northern Italy from the rest of the country) could end up holding the balance of power once more. However, the League has proved to be a troublesome ally in the past: in 1994, it brought down Berlusconi's first government after only seven months in office...

In any event, the ongoing uncertainty about the outcome of the election raises the prospect that Italy's next government will be as unstable, short-lived and ineffectual as its predecessor - precisely at a time when the country desperately needs decisive leadership - and that in one, two or three years voters will be called back to the polls in a further attempt to sort out the mess. As such, it's not hard to see why Italians aren't terribly excited about this year's election.


With polling stations closed, Italy's Ministry of the Interior reports voter turnout in the 2008 parliamentary election stood at 80.5% by 3:00 PM CEST (9:00 AM EDT/13:00 UTC) on Sunday, down from 83.6% in 2006.

As in 2006, early exit polls - which had the center-right coalition ahead by closer-than-expected margins, and the center-left Democratic Party narrowly ahead of Berlusconi's new People of Freedom party - proved to be inaccurate: in the end, the center-right coalition prevailed by a comfortable margin in both the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies, and the People of Freedom emerged as the largest single party, ahead of the Democratic Party in both houses of Parliament.

With 100% of the vote tallied in Italy proper and nearly all of the expatriate vote counted, the distribution of seats in the Chamber of Deputies stands as follows:

Silvio Berlusconi - 344 seats, of which:
People of Freedom - 276 seats
Northern League - 60 seats
Movement for Autonomy - 8 seats

Walter Veltroni - 246 seats, of which:
Democratic Party - 217 seats
Italy of Values - 29 seats

Center Union - 36 seats
South Tyrol People's Party (SVP) - 2 seats
Autonomy Freedom Democracy - 1 seat
Italians Abroad Associative Movement - 1 seat

Meanwhile, Senate seats were distributed in the following manner:

Silvio Berlusconi - 174 seats, of which:
People of Freedom - 147 seats
Northern League - 25 seats
Movement for Autonomy - 2 seats

Walter Veltroni - 132 seats, of which:
Democratic Party - 118 seats
Italy of Values - 14 seats

Center Union - 3 seats
South Tyrol People's Party (SVP) - 2 seats
SVP-Together for Autonomy - 2 seats
Valle d'Aosta List - 1 seat
Italians Abroad Associative Movement - 1 seat

For the most part, the election results were in line with opinion poll forecasts in late March, although the possible narrowing of the race hinted by some of the polls never materialized. While the Democrats made minor gains over the joint Olive Tree ticket set up by its predecessor parties in 2006, and Italy of Values almost doubled its share of the vote, the two parties were unable to bridge the gap with Berlusconi's center-right coalition, which emerged with a clear lead largely because the Northern League - originally forecast to make a modest advance - scored unexpectedly strong gains (while the People of Freedom's share of the vote stood just slightly above the combined showings of Forza Italia and National Alliance in 2006).

However, the real surprise in the election was the collapse of the Rainbow Left, which secured less than a third of the votes polled by its constituent parties in 2006, and failed to obtain a single seat in either the Senate or the Chamber of Deputies. The result, which left Italian Communists without parliamentary representation for the first time since the end of World War II - indeed, one could say that it faded like a rainbow - was all the more shocking because the last opinion polls had predicted a comparatively minor setback for the radical left alliance. That said, it should be noted that the far left's electoral decline is by no means an exclusively Italian phenomenon: just last month, Spain's Communist-led United Left had its worst result in that country's general election, while in France the Communist Party fared badly in last year's presidential and parliamentary elections.

A related (and equally unexpected) development was the sharp reduction in the number of parties represented in Parliament, which came down to fewer than ten in each house for the first time since 1972 (eight parties are represented in both the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies, while rival Valle d'Aosta tickets hold the region's single Senate and Chamber seats). Moreover, two parties - the People of Freedom and the Democrats - have emerged as Italy's dominant political forces, and the highly fragmented, nearly atomized party system that existed in Italy for nearly fifteen years has essentially reverted to a multi-party system with two major parties, not unlike the one that was in place during the Cold War era. Interestingly enough, in terms of voting strength the People of Freedom and the Democratic Party stand roughly at the same levels as the late Christian Democratic and Italian Communist parties around the mid-1970s.

Of course, it's too early to tell if the party system that emerged from the 2008 general election will prove to be lasting, and more importantly if it will foster the formation of stable governments. While successful, Berlusconi's People of Freedom remains well short an absolute majority in both the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies, and the Northern League now holds the balance of power. As previously noted, this is the same party that brought down Berlusconi's first government in 1994, but Berlusconi has insisted that the League is loyal, citing the party's participation in his 2001-06 coalition government. However, the League was a much weakened party at the time (following its disastrous advocacy of northern Italy's secession from the rest of the country at the turn of the century), and the party only managed to survive by re-joining Berlusconi's center-right coalition.

Nonetheless, the League was constantly threatening to bring down Berlusconi's government if it didn't have its way, although that didn't come to pass: in due course, Berlusconi's government approved a package of constitutional amendments that (among other things) provided for the devolution of powers to Italy's regions, as demanded by the League. However, the amendments were decisively rejected by voters in a 2006 referendum, and it remains unclear how Berlusconi will be able to satisfy the League's ongoing calls for devolution this time around. Moreover, the winning parties are already bickering over the division of cabinet appointments (just like the center-left parties following their victory in 2006), which is hardly a promising start.