Italy’s Return to Political Paralysis

For more than a decade, Italy has been ruled through a bipolar political system. Voters could choose between a left-wing coalition and a right-wing coalition. Those disappointed by the incumbent government could vote for the opposition. And the existence of a viable alternative has had a disciplining effect on politicians: not by chance, Silvio Berlusconi’s government served its entire electoral term.

This is in stark contrast to the Italian political tradition. Throughout the post-war era, until the early 1990’s, Italian governments survived less than a year on average. Voters were unable to choose between the incumbent and the opposition, because the same centrist parties were in office all the time. Government crises were merely an opportunity to reshuffle key cabinet positions or change the party faction of the prime minister.

However, there is now a high risk that Italian politicians will return to their old habits. This may seem strange, given the antagonism between Romano Prodi and Silvio Berlusconi during the electoral campaign. But that antagonism reflected the personalization of politics achieved by Berlusconi, as well as an institutional feature that he abolished. One of the last acts of his government was to replace the majoritarian electoral system, introduced in 1993, with proportional rule. The new electoral system changes the politicians’ incentives, and could induce a return to shifting coalitions and unstable governments. This outcome would be accelerated if, as is likely, Berlusconi himself were to distance himself from politics in the coming electoral term.

Under the new electoral rules, seats are allotted to parties in proportion to votes, but a special provision induces parties to forge pre-electoral agreements: the pre-electoral coalition that wins the most votes receives a seat premium that ensures a comfortable majority in the Chamber of Deputies (the lower house). Unfortunately, the new law – hastily enacted at the last minute of the previous legislature – has a silly formulation that does not guarantee an equally safe majority in the Senate. As a result, Prodi has won a large margin in the lower house, but he has only a handful of extra votes in the Senate. Given Italy’s almost perfect bicameralism, this means that the new government will find it very difficult to function even under ideal circumstances.