Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Italy after the 2013 indecisive, but dismal general elections **

by Gianfranco Pasquino (James Anderson Senior Adjunct Professor at Johns Hopkins University, Bologna) 

As all elections in parliamentary democracies, the February 2013 Italian elections were meant to give birth to a new Parliament. As in all parliamentary democracies, the distribution of seats in the new Parliament should have led to the inauguration of a new government. The contribution of the existing electoral system dubbed Porcellum (proportional plus a majority bonus) to the overall outcome has been quite significant. Thanks to a fistful of votes, the coalition made of the Partito Democratico, Sinistra Ecologia Libertà and the Socialisti Italiani won the majority bonus for the House of Deputies obtaining 340 seats. Because the allocation of the majority bonus for the Senate takes place region by region, there is no majority in the Senate. The Partito Democratico and its allies could not reach the absolute majority of seats in the Senate even after adding the seats won by Scelta Civica led by former Prime Minister Mario Monti. Since the Italian symmetrical bicameralism requires that all governments must receive an explicit vote of confidence from the absolute majority of parliamentarians in both Houses, the formation of a government appeared from the beginning close to impossible. Moreover, because of a curious coincidence, that had already manifested itself in two previous situations (1992 and 2006), the new Parliament also had the task of electing the President of the Republic. 

Giorgio Napolitano (President of The Republic) and Enrico Letta (PM)

Following the dismal failure of Bersani, the Secretary of the Partito Democratico, to muster a clear, solid, and reliable parliamentary majority in the Senate because the majority bonus had fabricated a sizable PD+SEL majority in the House of Deputies, the leaders of the Partito Democratico, of the Popolo della Libertà and of Scelta Civica felt to be obliged to elect first the President of the Republic. Napolitano had preempted any request for his re-election stressing personal (age) and institutional (not to create a precedent) reasons. A mixture of chaos and havoc within the Democratic Party quickly “burned” two official candidates (Franco Marini and Romano Prodi), none of them having, in my opinion, the “presidential” qualities required by the Constitution. What appeared to be a dramatic moment for the institutions obliged Bersani, Berlusconi and other party leaders, with the exception of Grillo, to ask Napolitano to accept to serve another term. Napolitano gave an affirmative answer on one fundamental condition. The Partito Democratico, the Popolo della Libertà and Scelta Civica had to commit themselves to the formation of a government, immediately called “delle larghe intese” (“broad agreements”), led by someone the President himself was going to choose and appoint. The government of the larghe intese was yet another instance of the “government of the President”, such as, some significant variations aside, Monti’s had been (November 2011-December 2012). The two parliamentary bases were quite similar, but the composition of the two governments was completely different. Monti’s government had been a fully non-partisan government, that is, entirely made of non-politicians, while Enrico Letta’s is an avowed partisan and political government.
The somewhat surprising element is that in the two moments of truth of the life of the new Italian Parliament, the Five Stars Movement played absolutely no role. Its 108 Deputies and 54 Senators remained completely at the margins of the political and parliamentary developments. Their lack of experience and political knowledge and the fact that their leaders, the comedian Beppe Grillo and the web guru Roberto Casaleggio, are both “extraparliamentarians” go some way to explaining the irrelevance of their activities. Their rejection of any political agreement with the other parties puts them at the margins of parliamentary politics. Widespread protest brought them to Parliament. The inability to formulate any acceptable proposals makes their presence ineffective.

In a way, the 2013 elections seem to have put an end to a twenty year period of hostile bipolar confrontation. To some extent, the so-called bipolarism was the product of the electoral rules. The electoral law called Mattarellum (1994, 1996, 2001) had encouraged the formation of two pre-electoral coalitions in order to support the candidates in single-member constituencies. The Porcellum gave a similar impetus towards the formation of two competing coalitions because the party/coalition winning more votes is granted a large bonus of parliamentary seats. There is no way of denying, however, that the most important, positive and negative, contribution to the establishment of bipolarism was made by Silvio Berlusconi. From the very beginning he shaped his political appeal and deployed his activities both in the government and in the opposition around a clear divide: “us against them”. On all possible occasions, he tried to polarize Italian politics, almost always reaping a fair amount of success. The paradox is that the return of his party into the government put an end, how temporarily it is difficult to say, to bipolarism and produced a situation similar to the one that had existed from 1947 to 1992: all oversized governmental coalitions  besieged by two oppositions (the Communists and the NeoFascists). Following  the November 2013 split of the Popolo della Libertà and Berlusconi’s withdrawal from the government, there are now two oppositions, the Five Stars and Forza Italia, both led by extraparliamentary leaders, both encircling and attacking Enrico Letta’s government.

The latest development has been engineered by the new secretary of the Partito Democratico, Matteo Renzi. Having been elected by a massive 68 per cent of almost three millions voters, Renzi has decided to “resuscitate” Berlusconi in order to draft with him a new electoral law that will give advantages to both major parties. The illusion that an electoral mechanism will solve major political problems and will restructure Italian parties and the party system seems hard to die. In the meantime, though nobody is willing to recognize the truth, the Italian political system remains fully dependent on the institutional wisdom and political acumen, and, above all, on the health and strength of an 88-year old President of the Republic. 

** this article was originally published by the PSA Blog.

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