The majority does not work for Italy

14.09.10 Publication:

It has been flattering to us British that so often during the Italian debate about politics and the electoral law, our system has been praised. It was even flattering this year, in May, when so many Italian commentators expressed worry about how our “first-past-the-post” majoritarian system had failed to produce a strong government for the first time in 36 years, and had forced the formation of a coalition government for the first time since 1945. Yet, flattering though the attention has been, in my view it is mistaken. A majoritarian system has worked well for Britain, but it is not right for Italy.

For the past year, I have been touring Italy doing research for a new book, FORZA, ITALIA, which will be published next month by Rizzoli. The aim of the research has been to explore the country’s strengths, to find the “Good Italy”, in contrast to the “Bad Italy” on which so many foreign critics (including myself) have concentrated. Following this first column in La Stampa, I hope to write regularly about the Good Italy. Thanks to that fascinating and enjoyable research, I have concluded that reforms will not work unless they suit the true strengths and nature of Italian society. And that is why the experiment with majoritarian systems has been a failure.

The present crumbling of the Berlusconi government is the latest evidence. Some will say that the conflict inside the centre-right coalition is personal, a conflict based on support for, or opposition to, Silvio Berlusconi himself, so that structural or fundamental conclusions should not be drawn from it. But that is a sufficient explanation. The deeper reality, surely, is that the coalition formed in 2008 was artificial. So was the coalition of 2001-06, even though it lasted longer. These have been coalitions of incompatibles, of southerners and the Lega Nord, of liberal reformers and conservatives, of fiscal profligates and of proponents of austerity.

It is the same on the left. Does the Partito Democratico really exist as a party? Why are the liveliest and most active forces on the left outside the PD, such as Nichi Vendola’s Sinistra Ecologia Liberta or Antonio di Pietro’s Italia dei Valori? Why is the party riven with factions? You can say, accurately, that all great parties are gatherings of differing tendencies, such as the Democratic Party in America, the Labour Party in Britain or Germany’s SPD. But it is a matter of degree. Perhaps Pierluigi Bersani is about to prove this wrong, but on the face of it neither the PD itself nor his hoped for new Olive coalition looks coherent.

The hope for alternation, for competing potential governments, was an understandable one after Tangentopoli and the collapse of the First Republic. But the military saying, that generals are always trying to fight the last war rather than looking ahead to the next one, is apt here too. The lack of alternation was a genuine problem in the environment of the Cold War and in a politics where the extremes were unacceptable. Yet today? All the efforts to produce solid majorities, with the majority premium and the search for bipolar parties, have failed.

What Italy has with the current electoral system is unstable alternation.Moreover, it has failed to produce effective governments too. Neither the Berlusconi governments of 2001-06 nor the present one has succeeded in implementing much of a reform agenda, despite the coalitions’ apparent voting strength in Parliament. Why? My belief is that the reason is that the coalitions were artificial, not real, in the same way as the PD remains an artificial party.

The list of reforms that seems to be on everyone’s agenda includes justice, education, labour, federalism, constitutional change, and more. All these reforms need a broad consensus if they are to have a chance of being carried out. All need a basic acceptance by the principal political parties that their opponents have a legitimate right to be in government. Yet neither that consensus nor that acceptance is present, as long as the current majoritarian, hyper-partisan system continues in place.

Britain’s political alternation works partly because of tradition: it is what we are used to. But it works chiefly because there is in Britain a broad acceptance of the rules of the political game. We have no written constitution, but still the political parties all accept that our constitutional tradition lays down certain basic requirements and rules. In May this year, when our general election produced no absolute majority, that constitutional tradition was put to a severe test. Yet within four days, a coalition had been formed, and it was accepted by the defeated Labour Party. The consensus already existed to make the change smooth and legitimate.

In Italy, it seems to me, the consensus needs to be created and recreated constantly. Power and interests are more divided and diffuse than in Britain. The deep divide between right and left is more than just a matter of philosophy or policy. So that basic divide always needs to be bridged, if consensus is to be created, and that consensus also requires the inclusion of other forces, whether regional or sectional.

For that reason, in my book I propose that the majority premium be abandoned and that the electoral law be reformed to a system that discourages tiny parties but that nevertheless recognises the diversity and diffusion of political interests and identity. A system like that used in Ireland, which avoids party lists by having direct voting for candidates in multi-member constituencies, chosen by a “single transferable vote” under which candidates are ranked according to preference, with a threshold of 5% for a party to gain seats: that is the sort of system that seems to me likely to match Italy’s basic characteristics, and to produce governments capable of reform.

No electoral system is foolproof. But any system needs to channel a country’s politics, not seek to subvert or transform it.