Sunday, 6 September 2015

Electoral reform in Italy: strengthening electoral integrity?

By Dr. Marta Regalia

The issue of electoral reform has been the subject of repeated debate in Italy during recent decades. In most established democracies, major changes to the electoral system have occurred rarely as the status quo prevails among incumbent political parties. By contrast, as illustrated in table 1, Italy has seen four major electoral reforms since 1945 (D'Alimonte, 2005), with the latest passed in May 2015. One might also include the enactment and then the repeal of the Italian legge truffa (“swindle law”), but it never came into operation (Katz, 2005).

Major electoral reforms in Italy (1945–2015)

Table 1: Major electoral reforms in Italy (1945–2015)
Year of reform or debate
Year of first use
New (or proposed) system
PR with preferential voting within lists, national pool, and low threshold
MMM with partial compensation
Not passed
Various schemes to enhance majoritarian character of system
Bonus-adjusted PR
Not passed
referendum to apply bonus to largest party rather than largest coalition
Majority-assuring semi-open list PR with eventual second round

Source: Adapted from Renwick (2010, 112) and Baldini (2011)

The first major reform, enacted in 1993, is a significant example of what Renwick (Renwick, 2010) calls elite–mass interaction: actually, a popular referendum played a prominent role. The PR system used since 1946 was identified as one of the main causes of political fragmentation, governmental immobility, the absence of alternation, corruption and clientelism. Electoral reform was then seen as able to contribute to lessening these problems (Donovan, 1995). The result was a mixed-member majoritarian system, which, however, was replaced in 2005 by a PR system with a majority bonus. This reform, an example of elite majority imposed reform, was driven by partisan considerations.

Following the electoral system established in 2005, in the Italian Chamber of Deputies (Camera dei Deputati) 630 members were elected through a closed-list proportional representation system. A pre-election coalition winning a plurality of votes was guaranteed 340 seats. The law had a series of thresholds designed to provide incentives for parties to enter coalitions, thus reducing party fragmentation. In the Senate (Senato della Repubblica), 315 members were elected through a closed-list proportional representation system but thresholds and premium are computed regionally, not nationally.

This system was used to elect lower and upper Chambers in 2006, 2008, and 2013. But it did not generate consensus since the new law was widely denounced immediately after the 2006 election and there were many attempts at further reform in subsequent years.

In December 2013, the Constitutional Court declared the 2005 electoral law unconstitutional for two main reasons: because it did not include a minimum threshold in order to attain the major­ity of seats, and because it had long, closed lists of candidates, so that selection was dominated by party leaders.

Understanding Italy's electoral performance

The immediate effect of the constitutional judgment was to accelerate electoral reform. In May 2015, a new electoral law was passed by parliament. The new proportional election system awards 340 out of 630 seats to any party (coalitions are not allowed) that wins more than 40% of the national vote (not just any plurality). If no party reaches that threshold, there is a second-round run-off between the two parties with the most votes. The electoral reform is expected to come into force in July 2016.

One way to understand this issue is to look at evidence of how independent experts evaluated the 2005 electoral system and comparable contests in post-industrial societies. The expert survey of Perceptions of Electoral Integrity (PEI 3-5) asks experts to evaluate elections using 49 indicators, grouped into eleven categories reflecting the whole electoral cycle. The dataset also includes a summary 100-point PEI Index based on summing all 49 indicators which provides one way to summarize the overall integrity of the election.

We can compare Italy’s performances in the PEI survey (Norris et al., 2015) with the mean of OECD member States. The results show that ranked Italy 21st out of 27 OECD countries, with an overall PEI Index of 67 on a 100-point scale. Italy is also second to last among West European countries.

Figure 1: Perceptions of Electoral Integrity Index in OECD member States

Source: Electoral Integrity Project. 2015. The expert survey of Perceptions of Electoral Integrity, Release 3.5 (PEI-3.5).

Note: Canada, France, Ireland, Luxembourg, Portugal, Spain and Switzerland are OECD member States not yet covered by PEI survey

To have a clearer understanding of the reasons why Italy performs so badly in the overall Perceptions of Electoral Integrity Index, the results can be broken down in more detai, as seen in figure 2.

Apart from boundary delimitation, all the other components of the electoral cycle show values below the OECD mean. The performance of Italy is mainly due to the electoral law[1]. According to the experts, the electoral law favoured the governing party, was unfair to smaller parties, and, above all, restricted citizens’ rights. This result is in line with the sentence of the Constitutional Court and with many of the major criticisms directed to the 2005 Italian electoral law. The long and closed lists of candidates provided party leaders with the power to select, in their “smoke-filled rooms,” the entire parliamentary class, disempowering the citizens. The PEI survey confirms this claim: experts evaluated the 2005 election law as restricting citizens’ rights[2].

Figure 2: Perceptions of Electoral Integrity components – Italy in respect to OECD mean

Source: Electoral Integrity Project. 2015. The expert survey of Perceptions of Electoral Integrity, Release 3.5 (PEI-3.5).

What about the future? Will the new reform strengthen electoral integrity?

Will the latest reform overcome some of the above-mentioned problems? The next general election will probably be in 2018. Supporters of the new law, called Italicum, claim that voters will now be able to choose their representative through preferential voting (open lists). By contrast, those who criticize the reform highlight the possibility of multiple candidacies in up to 10 districts which will significantly distort the relationship between voters and candidates (Regalia, 2015). Moreover, the majority bonus threshold of 40% will assign the majority of seats to the party collecting the biggest share of votes. It will put this party in the position to elect the President of the Republic on the fourth round of voting (when the absolute majority is sufficient), and to choose all five Constitutional judges and several components of the Higher Judiciary Council. Whether these spill-over effects will affect the integrity of future elections is a matter of opinion.

There is just one point everyone agrees upon: in Italy the electoral law will remain an object of intense and acrimonious debate, thus hindering both electoral integrity and the quality of the Italian democracy.


Baldini, G. 2011. The Different Trajectories of Italian

Electoral Reforms. West European Politics, 34, 644–663.

D'Alimonte, R. 2005. Italy: a Case of Fragmented Bipolarism. In: Gallagher, M. & Mitchell, P. (eds.) The Politics of Electoral Systems. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Donovan, M. 1995. The Politics of Electoral Reform in Italy. International Political Science Review, 16, 47-64.

Katz, R. 2005. Why Are There So Many (or So Few) Electoral Reforms? In: Gallagher  M. & Mitchell, P. (eds.) The politics of electoral reforms. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Norris, P., Martínez i Coma, F., Nai, A. & Grömping, M. 2015. The expert survey of Perceptions of Electoral Integrity, Release 3.5, (PEI_3.5). In: (ed.).

Regalia, M. 2015. Electoral Systems. In: Jones, E. & Pasquino, G. (eds.) Oxford Handbook of Italian Politics. Oxford: Oxfrod University Press.

Renwick, A. 2010. The Politics of Electoral Reform. Changing the rules of democracy, New York, Cambridge University Press.


[1] This difference of means is statistically significant at the 0.01 level in a 2-tailed independent sample t-test.

[2] This difference of means is statistically significant at the 0.01 level in a 2-tailed independent sample t-test.

1 comment:

  1. I just want thank you for sharing the beneficial information about Electoral . Please keep sharing more information.

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