Sunday, February 02, 2014

2014 Political Preview: Europa/Italia--Pt. 1

I aim to demystify two extremely complicated subjects in this post, and one which will follow soon after:  the proposal for reform of the electoral system in Italy, and the upcoming (in May) elections for the European Parliament.

I suppose I should try to make the case to my audience--those who are not Italians, or Europeans of any kind--that these are important subjects.  I know one group to whom these subjects are intrinsically of interest, and that would be the political scientists.  Italy has long been a case study in the conflict between the desire for greater democracy, which in Italy has taken the form of elections with proportional representation and multiple parties, and for governmental stability (which has been elusive in Italy with that system); while the European Parliament is a political experiement in multicultural representative democracy far more adventurous than has ever been attempted previously. Far more complex than the US democracy, the only plausible comparison is to India's electoral system, but Europe's system does not have the unifying element of a single, historically-dominant party (the Congress Party), and those unified by their desire to oppose it.   Beyond that, just consider that Europe's economy is far larger than China's, larger even than the US', so that if it were considered a single economy--and what is the European Union if not an attempt to make it so?--it would be the largest.  And, considered as a unit, Europe is lagging in its recovery from the Great Crater, so this has a significant effect on the global economy.  Further, within Europe Italy leads in lagging, that is, it is the country with the largest net loss in GDP yet to be recovered from the double-dip recession that has been experienced in Europe. So, whatever, interesting and/or important,  I hope you're convinced.  If so, read on, and I will be your Virgil to lead you through the dark paths ahead.

Primer on Italian Electoral Reform History:  
70 Years in 10 Minutes (if you read slowly) 
Before I can go into depth about this political lightning rod named Matteo Renzi and possibly explain what this reform thing is all about (and how it might be a little different from all the other electoral/political "reforms" that have occurred in Italy since World War II), I  need to give a little background.  I refer you also to the two other times that I have dared to post on Italian politics before, both within the last twelve months.  One of these was in February, 2013, just after the last Parliamentary elections, on the challenge of forming a government, and the other was in June when, contrary to many people's expectations, a government was actually formed.

So, a  primer: Italy's Parliamentary system has generally had elections driven around party lists with proportional representation within regions (the word is used loosely here, the electoral districts do not necessarily correspond to the Italian governmental regions); if your party could get over 5% of the vote, it will have representation in Parliament.  There are two houses of the Parliament, the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate; today's Italian Senate differs only by having some lifetime members, an honor to those who have served the government prominently and honorably (that cuts it down, as will be discussed),slightly different computational formulas, and the electorate is limited to those over 25 years of age (so there, whippersnappers!).

The result of the party list/proportional representation scheme has been splitting of the electorate, with two or three larger parties in double digits but always less than 50%, and a few smaller parties with less than 10% nationally (and some much less, but scoring Parliamentary seats on a regional basis).  The pattern, for most of the postwar period, has been shifting alliances and coalition governments based on pooling the strength of one or two large groups and a lot of similarly-minded smaller ones.  The test of a coalition is its ability to maintain a majority in key test votes; failing a test vote, the government is dissolved, and either a new coalition is formed or early elections are called.

This system was highly democratic, in that most votes end up gaining representation in Parliament, and with some resemblance to their number, but more democracy does not necessarily translate into good governance.  The larger parties in Italian history have eventually failed their supporters and collapsed.  The three large parties of the postwar period--the Communists (the P.C.I.), the Socialists (the P.S.I.), and the Christian Democrats (D.C.--somehow the third initial of the inevitable TLA--three-letter acronym--was omitted, perhaps it was their flaw)--all collapsed in the early 1990's, due to a combination of scandals, of alleged bribery and of the exposure of the infamous P2 Masonic lodge (which seemed to run everything in secret), along with the end of the Cold War, which demoralized the Communists, but also removed the reason for uniting in the DC as the hated-but-necessary alternative to Eurocommunism. These were the latest in a series of party formations and collapses dating back to the beginning of the modern Italian state, including also the Liberals, the Republicans, the Social Democrats, the Popular Party (P.P.I.) and the Fascists. With the exception of the Fascists, whose ruin was entering into WWII with opportunistic intent and disastrous result, the usual theme was unreliability of the leadership's loyalties and internecine squabbling.

Without a doubt, these themes have continued, but since the early Nineties, there has been a sincere search for a two-party system, Italian style. The multiplicity of parties has continued, but there has been a unifying force:  the dominant Italian politician of the last twenty years, Silvio Berlusconi;  and the coalitions have been roughly aligned around the (Berlusconian) free-market appeal against socialism/Communism and for patriotism (or provincialism), and its natural (for Italy, anyway) opposition, good-government social democracy oriented toward greater participation in the European Union.

In 1993, Italy changed the electoral law (through a referendum) from the traditional, fully "democratic" one with proportional representation and preference selection, to one with a mix of single-representative electoral districts and proportional representation with list order fixed by the parties. In 2005, the political forces aligned (basically with Berlusconi's desire) to create a new law designed to ensure major-party coalitions. Under this law, the parties could choose to agree to run in coalitions (though they would have different lists of candidates), and the coalition with the largest share of the popular vote (in the Chamber of Deputies only) would get enough additional representatives to reach 55% of that house, thus ensuring the basis of a majority. This worked pretty well--there were "only" four different governments between 2005 and the 2013 elections, well below the postwar Italian average--but the system was wrecked by events which converged in 2013, a couple driven by decisions of the Judiciary (an additional, powerful and unpredictable force itself), and a couple driven by the inherent flaws of the system.

First, there were the results in 2013, in which the top three party/coalitions--called (in translation) "Common Good" (the center-left), "Center-right", and "5 Star" (the iconoclastic movement headed by Beppe Grillo, see previous post) each obtained greater than 25% and less than 30% in the vote for the Chamber of Deputies. Despite the center-left coalition having received a mere 0.4% more than the center-right, it gained the majority bonus and went to 55% of the Chamber, the other two groupings dropping below 20% (and the other parties outside these groupings dropping from 16% of the vote to 8%)  of deputies. In the Senate, the popular vote results were similar (though a lower % for  5 Star, which tends to have more support among the young), but without the majority bonus the other two groups were virtually equal at about 40% of Senators.

So, in the Chamber of Deputies there was no problem, but a new government must be supported by majorities in both houses, and the Senate was the problem.  The little parties could be managed, but with 5 Star firmly against any agreement or coalition, the only solution was an agreement between center-left and center-right.  With the economic emergency, and the need above all else to agree on a budget which would convince the German bankers to continue to support Italy's, a non-partisan govenrment was formed.  Instead of being led by Pier Luigi Bersani, the leader of the largest party of the "victorious" center-left (now called the "Democratic Party"), a lesser politician from that party, the able but somewhat colorless Enrico Letta, was chosen as prime minister, with the center-right gaining a major share of the government posts, and the party furthest to the left of the center-left coalition (let's call it, the S.E.L., "the Greens") cut out of the deal. Bersani did the honorable thing, given his inability to close the deal and the fairly weak plurality his coalition obtained, and resigned as leader of the Democratic Party (he has since had a serious stroke, so it is unclear if he will return to any active political role).

Next come the two judicial results which have combined to cause turmoil in that "historic compromise" government (I use the phrase ironically).  It was formed to bring Italy's economy out of its slide; it hasn't done much to make that happen, though the slide seems to have slowed.  It did, however, manage to survive its first crisis, which came at the conclusion of a series of court cases lasting years, in which Silvio Berlusconi's conviction for tax evasion was finally, definitvely, affirmed (subject to appeal, of course).  It then fell to the Senate to decide whether to expel Berlusconi from its membership or defy the courts.  This split the center-right party down the middle. A significant number of his side, perhaps surprisingly large, decided to cut Berlusconi loose (they formed a new party called "New Center-right"--N.C.D.), and he was expelled from the Senate--forever (unless they change their mind someday).  The Senate coalition regrouped without the Berlusconi loyalists, who have taken on his party's former name, Forza Italia ("Go, Italy!"), and are seeking to bring down the government and bring new elections--in this regard, they agree with 5 Star, who got close but won no cigars out of the last election and are looking for a rematch.

Late last year, the Constitutional Court, Italy's highest, handed down a decision that the application of the 2005 law in the 2013 elections violated the Constitution, because the current law does not specify any minimum level of popular vote required to get the majority bonus; thus, the law departs too far from democratic principles.  In theory, with a dozen parties, a party could get 10% of the vote and end up with 55% of the deputies; in the event, the center-left coalition went from 29.5 to 54.8%, and this was too much for them. They did not specify what needed to be done, nor did they deny Parliament the right to make the electoral law, but they did say something needed to change--and before the next Italian Parliamentary election occurs.  Otherwise, the system would go back to the original proportional/preference scheme.

Matteo Renzi and the Italian Electoral Reform

Enter--finally!--Matteo Renzi.  Renzi is not in the Parliament, nor in the current Letta government; his day job is Mayor of Florence.  His real job, though, is head of the Democratic Party; he won a dramatic victory among the party loyalists last fall with two-thirds of the votes, and as the head of PD, he is also the de facto leader of the center-left, for the next election (which will come in the European Parliament this May; a subject for Part 2).  Renzi has stepped dramatically into the fray (the Italian word they use is usually "palude", the swamp) and volunteered to help concoct an Italian electoral law which will satisfy the Constitutional Court and set the stage for the next Parliamentary elections.

I have to say I admire his courage (also his youthful vigor, he is thirty-something) in taking on this role.  There are approximately as many possible solutions to this challenge as there are Deputies plus Senators (945!), and every one of them probably has a different solution in mind.   Here are a few of the issues he is tackling, and the proposed solution in the draft law*:

  1. Whether there will be lists at all, or whether it will all be one seat per district, most votes wins;
  2. Whether the parties will have the same list of candidates or different lists, by region, and the right to determine the list order or whether it will be determined in a primary;
  3. Whether there will be a majority bonus, and at what level of popular vote it will kick in, and what will happen if no coalition gets to that level;
  4. What the minimum level of votes for representation in Parliament will be, and whether there will be any regional concessions (i.e., whether that minimum will apply on a national basis only); 
  5. What, if anything, will be done to bring more women into the Parliament; and, last but not least,  
  6. What's to be done about the Senate? 

The current answers proposed by Renzi are:
  1. There will be lists (basically non-negotiable to Renzi); 
  2. The parties will name the lists (though he is agreeable to having primaries, they would not be mandated in the law); 
  3. Majority bonus is currently negotiated to kick in at 37% (boosting the leading coalition's level to 55%, though that is negotiable--the idea is to have it safely above 50% so the government would be stable), but so far, there is no plan to deal with the situation in which no coalition reaches the minimum level--it would lead to a difficult Parliamentary environment and probably necessitate new, early elections;
  4. The minimum number is being negotiated downward, to try and get some minor-party support, with 4.5% and 4.0% being discussed--allowances for provincial qualification is still under discussion; 
  5. Women will be equally represented on the lists, though there is the possibility for trickery (some women have discovered that and are challenging the provision); and 
  6. Tthe current thinking is either to abolish the Senate, or make it a dilatory, honorary body like the House of Lords in the U.K., which advises on laws but whose support is not required for a bill to become law.  This would be a separate bill, approved after the Election Law (which the Senate must approve!), but which would take effect either before or after the Electoral Reform law. 
Renzi's strategy is a hard-sell to the center-left and the center-right, both those within the government and outside it.  The little parties, of left, right, and center, have to come to Renzi to try and get the crumbs which will allow them to survive; otherwise, they need to compromise their ideology in the interests of their future and join either the center-left or the center-right coalition, or try somehow to survive in the cracks of the two-party future.  The amazing things are that Renzi has gone privately to Berlusconi and gotten him to go along, and that nobody seems to have much objection to eliminating the Senate--even the Senators themselves.  Most of them are prominent people with careers and feel that they can release this burden, or otherwise find employment in the government or in the parties. As for Berlusconi, the key aspect was retaining the electoral list--at the top of which he can put his own name, even though he will not be able to serve in Parliament unless the rules are changed--instead of going back to single electoral districts. (This works for Renzi, and his nascent cult of personality, as well.)  I would imagine that Berlusconi will also derive some pleasure from putting out of business the club that kicked him out.

The proposed reform has caused a lot of agita+ to everyone except Renzi and Berlusconi, including Letta (the debate can definitely cause the fall of his government), other members of his own party (who are being put in the shade), of the other parties of the governing coalition (who are being squeezed), of the parties of the extreme left and right (in extreme danger of losing representation in Parliament), and, finally and most gravely, the 5 Star Movement of Beppe Grillo. Grillo & Co. are opposed to any form of electoral reform short of direct election of members (very much in line with their general proposition for direct participation, and elimination of parties and alignment along a left-right spectrum); what they want tactically is to find a way to break down the government and go to new elections in the old style. They felt they were close to getting the upper hand, and further government ineptitude can only lead to greater success for them.

The volume amped up this week as the bill was presented to Parliament; 5 Star tried obstructionist tactics which bordered on disrespect for the institutions--something I'm sure they feel but are not permitted to express (it could lead to criminal action). The first test--defeating a motion that the proposed reform was itself unconstitutional--was surmounted with strong support from the government parties, as well as Berlusconi's.  The real debate will start in a week or two; Renzi will want to make some tactical concessions to bring in as much support as possible, as some of the deals he will have to make will turn off members of the smaller parties in the government--which after all is not his government--and the members are likely to be able to register their personal objections anonymously, in a secret ballot.

Regardless of the outcome of the debate--and the forces for passing something are very strong at the moment, despite the difficulties--Renzi has placed himself at the top of the list of candidates to be the next premier. Both he and Berlusconi have calculated that the reform would lead to a direct competition between his Democratic Party and a regrouped Berlusconi coalition, and Renzi would like his chances in that one: Berlusconi's support is ever more fragile in the public and the political elites.  Still out there in (dis)loyal opposition, though, will be Grillo and his forces; in the meantime, Grillo has an ideal opportunity to upset the balance of political forces in Italy through the elections for the European Parliament in May.

* I have not yet found access to a text of the draft law--I refer you to the following articles (Google will translate to English) on formulas under consideration and the recent laws, and one in English that helped clarify things.
+agita =upset stomach;  a useful word, though basically one of Italian-Americans and just a few from Italy's South. 

1 comment:

Chin Shih Tang said...

Developments have moved way faster than expected, and Renzi has engineered a premature takeover of the government; the new government should be announced tomorrow.
His words say that he moved to end the economic stagnation, as it would seem impossible for him to take over through elections sooner than the fall. I don't buy this, much: although Renzi will give the spirits a boost, there isn't that much he can do inside the government to the economy--a little tax cut here, a little tax increase (for the wealthy) there.

I think--and this is my own idea, I have not seen it in the innumerable commentaries out there--that it was instead the uncertain status of the reform law's support in Parliament (with a secret ballot) which caused him to move. Once in charge of the government, he can make approval of the final law an "important vote" which would constrain those who want the government to continue (and not have recourse to early elections) to support it. This will be his party, some others (but not all) of the "responsible" center-right, and would benefit from the abstention of Berlusconi's folks--Silvio has made a deal with Renzi on the reform law, and this will be the test of the agreement. If Berlusconi betrays him, it will set the stage for a venomous premature election campaign, which might be the best possible outcome for Italy--bring the blood to a boil and get the voters' partisan passions out. (as opposed to the apolitical indifference boosting the 5-Star Movement) Can it somehow be paired with the European Parliamentary elections scheduled (throughout Europe) for late May? I don't know the legality--I know the Italians want to avoid it--but if the reform fails, it will happen very soon after.