Murphy, Edward, Harvard International Review
Electoral Reform in Italy
On the morning of April 19, 1999, the early editions of many Italian national newspapers ran headlines declaring the passage of a referendum on electoral reform that was intended to create a more unified and workable government.
The referendum would have changed Italy's partially proportional-representation system, where representation in parliament is based on each party's percentage of the national vote, to an entirely first-past-the-post system, where seats are granted by district to whichever candidate wins a plurality. The stories based their claims on projections by the Abacus polling organization that 50.8 percent of eligible voters had participated. Over 90 percent of those voting had been in favor of a change in the electoral system that many analysts consider imperative for the future viability of Italian democracy.
When all votes were counted, however, only 49.6 percent of eligible voters had actually participated, a figure 0.4 percent too low to validate the referendum. This minor difference caused the failure of the referendum, not to mention the embarrassment of the newspapers. Though 21 million people had voted for electoral reform and fewer than 3 million had opposed it, proponents of a revised Italian parliamentary election system had suffered yet another defeat.
Concerns over Italy's electoral system date back to the end of World War II, when Italy adopted a new constitution. With memories of Mussolini's fascist dictatorship fresh in their minds, the framers of the constitution intentionally created a political system based on proportional representation, making it almost impossible for one party to dominate. At the time, the United States supported these plans, fearing the strength of the Italian Communist Party and the possibility of Soviet influence.
Since its passage, the Constitution has met its original goal by effectively preventing communists and fascists from seizing power. However, it has also kept any other government from holding power for a substantial period of time. At a rate of slightly over one government a year, Italy has reached 58th government in postwar history.
Italian governments fail so frequently because they are often coalitions of many small parties, all of which must be placated to keep the coalition intact. As a result, even minor conflicts within a government can cause its collapse. In early 1999 the Popular Party, which won seven percent of the national vote, threatened to dissolve former Prime Minister Massimo D'Alema's coalition, though in the end it failed to do so. Then, in December 1999, the tiny Socialist party, which received only two percent of the vote in the last national election, broke away from the coalition, forcing D'Alema to form a new government.
D'Alema's difficulties reflect Italy's continuing political problems. The government replaced in December included eight different parties with diverging priorities and demands. Keeping each of these parties satisfied was necessary to maintain the coalition's power, and this need to make constant, minor compromises restricted the government's ability to craft effective policies. The second D'Alema government was hardly better. Reforms of the constitution's electoral system have been proposed in the hope that Italy's chronic political instability can be moderated.
The first of these reforms was a referendum passed in 1993 that abandoned Italy's system of entirely proportional representation in favor of one that allocated 25 percent of the 660 seats in parliament proportionally and the rest in a first-past-the-post system. Despite this reform, instability has persisted since the continuing allocation of seats based upon a party's proportion of the national vote still gives great influence to parties that won a majority in only a few districts. …