2014 12 – Listening to Italy

Listening to Italy by Orecchiette


In 2005 Italian electoral law was changed by an act introduced by Senator Roberto Calderoli. Almost immediately he called it una porcata, “shit”, loosely translatable into English as “a dog’s dinner”. Much later he admitted to having been pressured, saying that it had been “a bill born out of blackmail”. It soon got nicknamed Porcellum, literally a pigsty law. Matteo Renzi Italy’s Prime Minister is currently re-writing it under the title of Italicum, meaning: of or from Italy.

Italicum is complex. The main points are that it is based on the Spanish system and allows for a second round of voting if a majority of 40% is not reached by one party. It is hoped that the new system will give a stable government. It continues the premium of additional seats for the party with the largest number of votes. But the % premium will be reduced from the 55% under Porcellum to 40%. There are eligibility thresholds that have to be reached by single parties and also coalitions in order to get seats. There are also slightly different rules for the two northern areas with significant linguistic minorities. National constituencies are will be smaller and have fewer representatives – making it easier for voters to know their local representatives. The blocked lists have been modified and there are some allowances for male and female quotas on the lists. Under Porcellum candidates were able to stand in unlimited numbers of areas. A curious idea; these have been reduced.

The main points were agreed on 25 November. Time still has to be spent on approving Italicum and it is hoped that it will have completed its passage by February. Changes can still be made.

A brief background to this starts with the referendum that abolished the monarchy in 1946. From 1945, and during the First Republic from 1946 – 94 there were 61 different governments. The Christian Democrats mainly held power during this time. One of their strategic imperatives (assisted by the US and NATO) was to stop the PCI, the Communists, or even the left from having any power. The infamous Giulio Andreotti, with a 40yr involvement in Christian Democrat politics, admitted as much in 1990.

By the start of the 1990s Italians were disenchanted by their political and ruling class. There was rampant corruption, massive government debt and political paralysis. In 1993 a national referendum was held followed by political changes, one of which was dropping proportional representation. The new law was nicknamed Mattarellum after its rapporteur Sergio Mattarella. The subsequent election resulted in many fresh faces in government, a national sense of hope and the start of the Second Republic.

Berlusconi’s government modified Mattarellum, by introducing Porcellum in 2005. This was far from altruistic. It was designed to strengthen his control and also to reduce the influence of the smaller parties. This didn’t work. Then in 2013 The Constitutional Court ruled that the electoral system was unconstitutional. The successful case was based on the interpretation of the Italian Constitution. The contested points were the very large premium amounting to 55% of the seats in the lower house which were given to the winning party and the use of blocked lists. The parties order their candidates into a list. After an election the number of seats to be allocated is known and they are taken in strict order from that party-compiled list. It was successfully argued that Porcellum took away the electorate’s democratic right to choose.

This ruling applied to all future governments. The decision not to make it retroactive was to maintain the legitimacy of the current government. Its pressing brief was therefore to bring into law a structure that would not be unconstitutional. But, Enrico Letta’s government didn’t last to see the job finished. The next government which was led by Renzi was not elected. He was simply given a vote of confidence by a parliamentary assembly that actually could not legitimately vote him in. But, again the imperative was to devise a new electoral system.

The Italian parliamentary structure has a lower house of deputies with 630 seats and an upper with 315 senatorial seats. There are also 20 regional governments, 5 of which have differing amounts of autonomy. Renzi would like to amalgamate the Senate and the Regional governments. This would be hugely unpopular with those about to lose power, influence and sleek government cars. It would save a lot of money and the intention is that it would reduce the power of the Senate to modify the work of the lower house.

Renzi’s current proposals are not very innovative but follow on from Porcellum. So, there are jokes about Italicum being a little pig.

One further factor is that President Georgio Napolitano, nicknamed the cadaver, will shortly be 90. The press speculate that he wants to resign when he makes his annual speech to the nation on 31 December. Both he and Renzi want to conclude Italicum as soon as possible. There are nightmare visions of a country with no government or President and everyone, particularly the EU, wants to avoid the fudges that would result.

The fact that the political class do not want to jeopardise their seats in an election adds a measure of pressure, a type of blackmail, concentrating thoughts on Renzi’ new legislation however odious much of it seems to many. And that includes the even more contentious Jobs Act, with its curtailment of workers’ rights. Many in his party are bitterly opposed to it, while he is supported bizarrely by Berlusconi and Alfano’s right-leaning parties. Mrs Merkel also agrees, but the Unions, particularly the communist CGIL (Confederazione Generale Italiana del Lavoro) are organising a general strike for mid-December. Renzi has said that he wants to serve a full term as Prime Minister. Will he make it?