Italian Elections: The Triumph of Alice? (Part I)


Why would we care about the Italian elections? Isn’t this the country that has had over 50 governments since 1945, that is in a seemingly perpetual crisis, that is governed by picturesque characters like Berlusconi? Isn’t this also the country that, in terms of GDP, is the third in Europe and the eighth in the world? Whose population of 60 million people is the fourth largest in Europe, and thirty-third in the world? A key member of the G8 and of NATO? Whose cultural footprint is truly unparalleled, possessing  more UNESCO world heritage sites than any other country while remaining a trend-setter in the arts, fashion, and high-end craftsmanship?

What Do the Italians Elect?

In order to counteract the famed Italian political instability, and to ensure strong parliamentary majorities for any given cabinet, a reform of the electoral system was passed in 2005. Pursuant to these reforms, the 630 members of the lower house (Chamber of Deputies) are now elected on closed party lists from 17 districts (details), by a proportional representation system. If this is a proportional electoral system, how would this avoid fragmentation? Well, there is a major corrective to proportionality, namely that, by law, the party that wins a plurality of votes nationally, automatically obtains 55% of the seats in the lower house (340 seats). The irony is that, given the fickleness of Italian politics, this 55% does not always represent a strong majority.

Unlike in other parliamentary systems, the upper house (Senate) has about as much power as the Chamber of Deputies (the lower house is usually the more powerful). This makes Italy one of the most balanced bicameral systems around. And, since the Senate is not only called to pass legislation, but also to approve the prime minister and the cabinet, a majority in the upper house is essential for appointing and maintaining a stable government. However, this majority is not simple to obtain. According to the new electoral system, most of the 319 members of the Senate are elected on closed party lists, in 21 different constituencies (regions). Each region has a number of Senate seats allotted; however, in order to “force” a majority, in each region the party that obtains the plurality of votes, automatically receives 55% percent of that region’s seats. The problem is that, given Italy’s socio-political fragmentation, and the significant cultural differences between the various regions, this does not necessarily add up to a Senate majority.

An interesting detail is that the minimum age requirement for voting for Senate candidates is 25; it is enough to be 18 years old, however, to be able to vote for the lower house.

The (First?) Elections of 2013

The elections of 2013 were called after the announced resignation of Mario Monti’s technocratic cabinet, which (as its “technocratic” attribute indicates) initially came to power as a government of non-political specialists, called in to take care of the economic crisis, because none of the political parties was able or willing to assume that responsibility. The advantage of technocratic governments is that they are not indebted politically to anyone, and can assume the risk of implementing difficult, even harsh policies, which would otherwise destroy the support of any party attempting them. The major disadvantage of such governments comes from the same feature; since they do need a majority in the parliament to pass these policies, they depend on a frail constellation of political support, which is never guaranteed, given their lack of political affiliation. This is what happened in Italy, with Silvio Berlusconi’s coalition withdrawing their support from Monti’s cabinet. Without this support, Monti could not continue implementing the austerity measures that brought upon him the anger of many Italians, but which may have started putting Italy on the right track.

With Monti for Italy! In a surprising move, however, Monti, who is a respected economist and academic, decided to remain in politics, taking into account both the need for a responsible, efficient government, as well as the general public dissatisfaction with the existing political alternatives.

To the Right: Berlusconi. These existing political alternatives include, on the center-right, the coalition led by the seemingly inexhaustible Silvio Berlusconi, who has staged a comeback that was unimaginable only a couple of years ago – when he resigned his prime-ministership in less than honorable circumstances, with both the Italian economy and his public image in shambles. But his sizable resources and high public profile constitute a capital that few others have in Italy; thus, the many parties of the center-right could only agree to a renewed Berlusconian leadership. And, in the run-up to the elections, this effective communicator managed to promise (again) to the economically afflicted Italians that he will undo many of the austerity measures (some introduced by Monti, and some by the same Mr. Berlusconi, during his previous tenure in government).

To the Left: the Center-Left. This coalition is composed by some of the recent incarnations of the Italian left-of-center, whether with Christian-democratic or with social-democratic roots. Among them, the most important is the Democratic Party of Mr. Pier Luigi Bersani. With Berlusconi’s blemished public image, and with Monti’s low popularity, the center left looked prone to winning these 2013 elections; which meant that Bersani chose the path of least resistance during the campaign, making few promises and relying simply on the inertia of the situation.

Nobody Expects Beppe & the Grillini. For more than a couple of years now, comedian and public personality Giuseppe (Beppe) Grillo has been loudly and emphatically announcing the demise of the entire existing political system and the arrival of a new politics. In preparation for this, in a pure anti-system fashion, he abjured any apparition in  the Italian media (a good part of which is under Berlusconi’s influence), and confined all his  mobilizing efforts to the internet and to the public squares of Italy. And, to many observers’ surprise, the impact was notable; in fact, it might be the first time that a movement built only on the newest and on the oldest means of mass communication has had such a significant impact in politics. And, as in a sketch by his confrères, although nobody ever really expected it, the grillini‘s suddenly entered Italian politics – and turned it upside down. Or, rather, they allowed the Italian people to turn upside down a political and economic situation that was already topsy-turvy.

And Here Are The Results:

In a sign of the Italian public’s disaffection with politics, but also of its high levels of political participation (both, indeed), 25% of Italians chose not to attend these elections; and this still represents one of the highest levels of participation among industrialized countries, although it is lower than the usual rates in Italy.

Of those that went to vote, a similar, relatively low percentage of electors chose the two major coalitions – of the center-right (Berlusconi), or center-left (Bersani): about 30%. Only 10% had the sense of civic responsibility, or comfortable enough life, to choose Monti’s alliance. Some 5% percent of the vote was distributed among the very many ideologically or geographically marginal political groupings that populate Italian politics; none of them made it into the parliament. But about 25% percent of the total vote, in both houses, and from all regions, went to one party and one party only – Beppe Grillo’s Movimento 5 Stelle (Five Star Movement) – making it the largest single party in the Italian parliament.

Here are the complete results, for the Chamber of Deputies:

COALITION / Party % of National Vote # of Seats
Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement 25.55 108
Center-Left (Bersani)
– Democratic Party 25.42%, 292.
– Left Ecology Freedom 3.20%, 37.
– Democratic Center 0.49%, 6.
– South Tyrolean PP, 0.43%, 5.
29.55 340
Center-Right (Berlusconi)
– People of Freedom 21.56%, 97.
– Northern League 4.08%, 18.
– Brothers of Italy 1.95%, 9.
– The Right 0.64%, 0.
– Great South… 0.43%, 0.
– Moderates in Rev. 0.24%, 0.
– Pensioners’ Party 0.16%, 0.
– Popular Agreement 0.07%, 0.
– Indep. for a Fair Italy 0%, 0.
29.18 124
With Monti for Italy
– Civic Choice 8.30%, 37.
– Christian & Center Democrats 1.78%, 8.
– Future and Freedom 0.46%, 0.
10.56 45

You might have noticed the strong discrepancy between percentages obtained and seats assigned; the center-left and the center-right are separated by only 0.37 % of the Italian vote, yet the Bersani coalition was assigned 340 seats, while Berlusconi’s coalition received only 124. The reason is that those 340 seats represent 55% of the seats in the lower house, which are given automatically to the coalition obtaining a plurality (however slim) of the national vote. The remaining seats are then divided among the other parties or coalitions, in proportion to the percentages obtained.

You should not miss out on checking the full results list (reference; official), which includes the 30 or so political groups that received votes but did not obtain seats in the Chamber; their names will take your imagination on a very pleasant ideological trip .

Here is the summary of the results, for the Senate:

COALITION / Party % of National Vote # of Seats
Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement 23.79 54
Center-Left (Bersani)
– Democratic Party 27.43%, 105.
– Left Ecology Freedom 2.97%, 7.
– Democratic Center 0.53%, 0.
– The Megaphone … 0.45%, 1.
– Italian Socialist Party 0.18%, 0.
– Moderates 0.04%, 0.

31.63 113
Center-Right (Berlusconi)
– People of Freedom 22.30%, 98.
– Northern League 4.33%, 17.
– Brothers of Italy 1.92%, 0.
– The Right 0.72%, 0.
– Pensioners’ Party 0.40%, 0.
– Great South… 0.39%, 1.
– Moderates in Revol. 0.22%, 0.
– Sicilians’ Party 0.15%, 0.
– Popular Agreement 0.08%, 0
– People’s Work 0.07, 0.
– Enough Taxes 0.06%, 0.
– Independents for a Fair Italy 0.02%, 0.
30.72 116
With Monti for Italy
9.13 18

You might have noticed that, for the Senate, the number of seats obtained by a coalition does not seem to correspond to their percentage of the national vote; the reason is that the seats are not assigned nationally, but separately in each region.  In other words, each region has allotted a different number of seats in the Senate (as they are of  different sizes), and in each region the coalition winning plurality receives 55% of the seats allotted to that region, while the rest of the seats are divided among the other political groups, in proportion to the vote obtained there. For added political delight, you can check the full results list (reference; official).

Please be mindful that the names on the lists above have been translated, and some had to be abbreviated, for reasons of space.

What Does This Mean?

This is indeed the 1 million Euros question. The situation goes beyond the usual political gridlock between left and right, being complicated by the ferocious enmity between the current center-right coalition (with and because of Berlusconi), and Bersani’s center-left, and by what is widely considered to be a protest vote of the Italians, through which both traditional alternatives, as well as Monti’s “professional alternative”, have been largely dismissed. Instead, the most relevant single party in both houses of the legislature is now a group whose very origins, goal and tactics are, very simply put, the rejection of the entire Italian socio-political status quo. A rejection that is present not only in message, but is also translated in a programmatic, already announced refusal to cooperate with any of the existing political groups in Parliament.

Indeed, Beppe Grillo movement’s motto is, “throw them all out!” (they use a more direct expression – see video below). But doesn’t the new electoral law give to the party that wins a plurality of votes, a secure majority in the lower house, at least? Indeed; but in order for laws to be passed – and, even before that, for a prime minister and cabinet to be elected – majorities are needed in both houses; and in the Senate, no party, coalition or presumable alliance looks able to garner those 50% +1 seats. Furthermore, let us remember that even that 55% majority in the lower house is, based on the Italian experience, actually a fragile one.

What then? Examining the current situation and the possible alternatives, and looking into the characteristics of the Grillo movement, will be the subject of the second part of this analysis.


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