How does Italy’s new electoral law actually work?

If there's one thing Italian politics doesn't need, it's continued instability. But a new electoral law, to be tested for the first time when voters go to the polls in March, adds yet another element of uncertainty to the 2018 election.

How does Italy’s new electoral law actually work?
Current PM Paolo Gentiloni delivering his end-of-year speech in December, after which he dissolved parliament. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

When the current prime minister, Paolo Gentiloni, was appointed in December 2016, he was the fifth new PM in as many years, and the fourth unelected prime minister in a row.

No single party – and not even a coalition – has been able to gain enough seats to govern over the past five years. This has led to so-called 'grand coalitions', meaning that parties from across the political spectrum join together to form a government after the vote. Unsurprisingly, because of the often very different views these parties hold, that makes for a rocky environment in which to introduce any kind of new law or innovation, and these governments have a stronger likelihood of collapsing.

This year's general election is scheduled for March 4th, but shows no signs of bringing an end to this instability.

Votes will be cast using a new, never tested electoral law. It was a necessity after Italy was left with two different electoral systems for its houses of parliament in December 2016. Former PM Matteo Renzi had reformed the way the lower house was elected, but his attempts to do the same in the Senate failed, creating an inconsistent electoral system.

Over the next few months, Italy's parties grappled with the task of putting together a new law. The result is ‘Rosatellum’, a name it gets from Ettore Rosato, who leads the Democratic Party in the Lower House and drafted an early version of the law, which was passed in a modified version in October 2017.

So, how does it actually work, and what does it mean for Italy's political future?

What you need to know about Italy's upcoming 2018 election
File photo: AFP

The first thing to know is that Italy's parliament is made up of two houses or chambers: the Chamber of Deputies (or Lower House) with 630 members, and the Senate (Upper House) with 315 members. For any law to get passed in Italy, it needs approval from both these chambers.

Italians get two votes, one for each of the houses, and can vote for different parties in each if they wish. In total, 37 percent of the seats in each house will be allocated via the first-past-the-post system (directly elected), and 64 percent proportionally (indirectly elected based on lists). So some seats will be filled by candidates directly elected to represent their local constituency, with the rest divided proportionally between each party depending on their performance nationwide. Voters can't split their vote between the first-past-the-post and proportional representation system, so a vote for a first-past-the-post candidate is a vote for the party or coalition they are aligned with. 

To get more specific, 232 seats in the Lower House and 102 in the Upper House will go to first-past-the-post winners, while 398 and 213 will be awarded based on proportional representation lists. Most of the seats awarded through proportional representation will be based on national lists, though a small number (12 in the Lower House and six in the Upper House) will go to the overseas vote, awarded based on separate lists but still using proportional representation.  

Italy's political parties are moving closer to a deal for autumn elections
The Chamber of Deputies or Lower House. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

In order to gain the seats awarded through proportional representation, parties must get a minimum of three percent of the vote in both houses; for coalitions, that figure rises to ten percent.

As for how the changes to the law could affect the eventual outcome, one big change is that the three-percent threshold and first-past-the-post system provide an incentive for coalitions. In order to win the first-past-the-post seats, parties with similar outlooks will be rewarded by grouping together rather than splitting the possible vote.

The idea behind this is that it will make Italy more governable by encouraging coalitions rather than lots of small parties, but the M5S argued that it penalizes them (the party labels itself as anti-establishment and refuses to enter into coalitions). It's particularly good news for Forza Italia, the Silvio Berlusconi-led party, which has recently won a series of local election victories thanks to its ability to build alliances, but it bodes less well for the left-wing parties, including the governing Democratic Party, as they have seen several splits and disagreements over the past year.

The allocation for first-past-the-post winners in constituencies also benefits parties with a strong regional base. The Democratic Party will be counting on support from the left-wing strongholds of Tuscany, Emilia Romagna and Umbria, while the Northern League will be hoping to scoop up some first-past-the-post votes in the north-eastern regions of Lombardy, Veneto and Piedmont.

The eventual result is anyone's guess at the moment — this is unchartered territory. Current polling suggests that there won't be a clear winner, which will mean the parties will be forced to result to bargaining after the vote. While the centre-right coalition appears to be doing well, a hung parliament is probably the likeliest result, which could lead to a grand coalition, or, less probably, the result that nobody wants: new elections.

READ ALSO: Five things we learned from Italy's telltale local elections



Berlusconi to run for Senate in Italy’s elections

Scandal-plagued former premier Silvio Berlusconi said he plans to return to Italy's parliament in upcoming elections, almost a decade after being forced out over a conviction for tax fraud.

Berlusconi to run for Senate in Italy's elections

“I think that, in the end, I will be present myself as a candidate for the Senate, so that all these people who asked me will finally be happy,” the 85-year-old billionaire and media mogul told Rai radio on Wednesday.

After helping bring down Prime Minister Mario Draghi last month by withdrawing its support, Berlusconi’s centre-right Forza Italia party looks set to return to power in elections on September 25th.

It is part of a right-wing coalition led by Giorgia Meloni’s post-fascist Brothers of Italy, which includes Matteo Salvini’s anti-immigration League.

Berlusconi brushed off reports he is worried about the possibility of Meloni – whose motto is “God, country and family” – becoming prime minister.

Noting the agreement between the parties that whoever wins the most votes chooses the prime minister, he said: “If it is Giorgia, I am sure she will prove capable of the difficult task.”

READ ALSO: Italy’s hard right set for election victory after left-wing alliance collapses

But he urged voters to back his party as the moderate voice in the coalition, emphasising its European, Atlanticist stance.

“Every extra vote in Forza Italia will strengthen the moderate, centrist profile of the coalition,” he said in a separate interview published Wednesday in the Il Giornale newspaper.

League party leader Matteo Salvini (L), Fratelli d’Italia leader Giorgia Meloni and Forza Italia leader Silvio Berlusconi pictured in October 2021. The trio look set to take power following snap elections in September. Photo by CLAUDIO PERI / ANSA / AFP

Berlusconi was Italy’s prime minister three times in the 1990s and 2000s, but has dominated public life for far longer as head of a vast media and sports empire.

The Senate expelled him in November 2013 following his conviction for tax fraud, and he was banned from taking part in a general election for six years.

He was elected to the European Parliament in 2019, however, and threw his hat in the ring earlier this year to become Italy’s president — although his candidacy was predictably short-lived.

Berlusconi remains a hugely controversial figure  in Italy and embroiled in the many legal wrangles that have characterised his long career.

He remains on trial for allegedly paying guests to lie about his notorious “bunga-bunga” sex parties while prime minister.

Berlusconi has also suffered a string of health issues, some related to his hospitalisation for coronavirus in September 2020, after which he said he had almost died.