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Analyzing the Italian general elections

[1]

By Piero Ignazi (for Safe Democracy)

Piero Ignazi analyzes the recent Italian general elections, explaining the probable reasons of such controversial results. Thanks to the new electoral law, paradoxically passed by the former centre-right government, the winning coalition (in this occasion the centre-left) could avail of a very large majority of seats in the Chamber, he states. Furthermore, Ignazi highlights the fact that for the first time, thanks to a recent bill firmly promoted by the centre-right, Italians living abroad had the right to vote for electing deputies and senators, but their votes were not the expected. A U-turn of the centre-left regarding some fiscal matters finished it off. The end of the story is a very large majority of the centre-left in the Chamber and a tight one in the Senate. But, as he points out, this result was universally unpredicted.


[2] Piero Ignazi is Professor of Comparative Politics at the University of Bologna. He is graduated at the University of Bologna and attended graduated studies at the European University Institute in Florence, and at the MIT. He is the Director of the Master in International Relations, University of Bologna. His field of research concerns mainly the party and party system all over Europe with particular emphasis on the right-extremist parties.

THE 2006 GENERAL ELECTIONS CONFIRMED THE DIVISION of the country into two equal and opposite camps: the two coalitions led respectively by Romani Prodi (centre-left) and Silvio Berlusconi (centre-right) collected almost the same amount of votes. “Third parties” collected less 200.000 votes in total.

The centre-left won in the lower chamber (Camera dei Deputati) for a handful of votes (less than 25.000 votes!); while in the upper chamber (Senato della Repubblica) –where minimum voting age is 25 years old– the centre-right prevailed for around 250.000 votes. The impression of stall, however, would be misleading.

A NEW ELECTORAL LAW

Thanks to the new electoral law the winning coalition (in this occasion the centre-left) could avail of a very large majority of seats in the Chamber.

The new electoral law, which was passed by the former centre-right government amidst a very hot confrontation with the opposition at the end of 2005, re-introduced a party-list PR system with bonus for the winning coalition in both chambers (although with minor but relevant differences between Camera and Senato).

In the Chamber the bonus, granting 54 per cent of the seats, is allotted to the coalition with the relative majority provided that it reaches a minimum of 10 per cent of the votes and that one of the parties of the coalition reaches a minimum of 2 per cent of the votes. The narrow advantage of 25.000 votes was enough to provide the centre-left of 340 seats out of 630. The same rules apply to the Senate with two variations: first the quota to get representation are 20 per cent for the coalition; second, much more important, the bonus (assuring 55 per cent of the seats) is not calculated on the total votes cast nationally but region by region: therefore, the bonus is calculated on the basis of the number of seats which each region avails of.

This implies that winning in large regions such as Lombardy, Campania, Latium, or Sicily offers important assets for the final victory in the Senate. And in fact the success of the centre-right in some of the larger regions gave to this coalition a (very narrow) advantage in votes and in seats.

ITALIANS ABROAD’S VOTES
The one seat advantage of Berlusconi’s coalition in the Senate was however overcome by the votes coming from Italians abroad. For the first time, thanks to a recent bill firmly promoted by the centre-right, and especially by Gianfranco Fini’s Alleanza Nazionale (National Alliance), Italians living abroad had the right to vote for electing 12 deputies and 6 senators. With much surprise, given enduring stereotypes which rated Italians abroad nationalistic and even nostalgic and therefore supportive of the centre-right, the centre-left largely prevailed, winning five senators out of six.

Thanks to this outcome the balance in the Senate reverted in favour to the centre-left allowing to it a majority of three senators. The end of the story is a very large majority in the Chamber and a tight one in the Senate.

THE CENTRE-LEFT U-TURN
This result was universally unpredicted. Last year the centre-left had won a landslide victory in the regional elections winning thirteen out of fifteen regions; and the opinion poll had constantly granted it a large advantage over the centre-right. What happened in the electoral campaign to change the mood?

On one side Mr. Prodi and his allies made a series of impressive faux pas. They themselves introduced into the campaign the fiscal question with a series of confusing and alarming proposals of raising taxation over the state treasury bonds (which are were widespread among the population), the donations and the family house (whose property regards more than 80 per cent of Italians). The U-turn precipitously made on these topics was unconvincing, while the centre-right hammered out very efficaciously on it.

AN UNPREDICTED RESULT
As far as the results are concerned, the party system proved once more very fragmented and bipolar: more than ten parties gained parliamentary representation and no party outside the two coalitions got any seat. However, the centre-left did not meet the forecasted clear success it longed for. It performed quite well (as usual) in the red belt, and conquered three regions in the centre-south, but it failed to make its breakthrough in the most developed northern regions. In the north it scored quite well in the urban areas (except Milan) but not in the densely industrialised areas outside the metropolitan areas, north to the Po river. In Piedmont, for example, the centre-left won in Turin surmounting the centre-right by 11 points, but lost in the other areas of the region.

The first, gross interpretation leads to say that the tax-raising image of the centre-left moved the wealthier non-urban northern constituency to the right. All this, without discarding the tight control over the media by the former prime minister Berlusconi.