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



Italian elections: What’s the difference between a majority and ‘super majority’?

Italy's elections on Sunday are expected to produce a far-right government, but how big a majority will it have and what difference does this make? Here's what you need to know.

Italian elections: What's the difference between a majority and 'super majority'?

The right-wing alliance of parties led by Giorgia Meloni’s post-fascist Brothers of Italy is expected to win the September 25th general election by a landslide. 

In fact, the question many people have been asking for a while now is not whether the right will win, but by how much.

READ ALSO: Far-right Brothers of Italy eyes historic victory as Italy votes

The right-wing bloc, led by Meloni’s post-fascist Brothers of Italy and also including Matteo Salvini’s League and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, is expected to easily win a big enough share of the vote to take a majority of the seats in both houses of parliament and form a government.

But will they win a simple majority or a ‘super majority’? Here’s a quick guide to how the system works, what the difference is, and why it matters so much.

What’s a simple majority?

A government with a simple majority has the support of just over half of either the Senate or the Lower House – so at least 201 seats in the House and 101 in the Senate (not counting the six senators for life).

Getting a large enough share of the vote to ensure this is already quite an achievement in Italy, where the electoral system is set up to favour coalition governments precisely in order to stop any one party from ending up with too much power (it was, after all, designed after WW2 and the fall of Mussolini’s Fascist regime).

READ ALSO: Is Brothers of Italy a ‘far right’ party?

So under this system, the party that takes the largest share of the vote still needs help – a coalition partner, or several – to get a majority of seats in parliament and form a workable government. This usually requires major compromise and sees parties striking difficult bargains with others from across the political spectrum.

This time, the right-wing alliance looks more than likely to win by a landslide and take a majority between them – in which case it won’t need to seek outside support.

Some political analysts predict that Meloni and Salvini’s parties will win enough seats to form a government on their own, without involving Berlusoni’s more moderate party. They might choose to join forces anyway – but the more parties involved, the less stable a government is.

And, with a smaller number of parties involved, it would basically be easier for a government to pass the laws it wants to pass. (That is of course discounting the still enormous potential for bickering and power plays between even just a few coalition partners.)

So what’s a super majority?

Known more officially in Italy as a maggioranza speciale o qualificate (special or qualified majority) a ‘super majority’ is a two-thirds majority of the seats in both houses of parliament.

The prospect of Italy’s right-wing parties reaching this threshold has been hotly discussed in the media, since a government with such a large majority would be able to make changes to the political system itself, and therefore the constitution, without consulting voters via a referendum.

EXPLAINED: Who’s who in Italy’s general election?

A political force achieving a majority large enough to change the constitution would be unprecedented in Italy’s postwar history, and could bring major changes to the country’s political system – including to how the president is elected, or the powers the prime minister has.

and right-wing parties Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d'Italia, FdI), the League (Lega) and Forza Italia at Piazza del Popolo in Rome, ahead of the September 25 general election.

Forza Italia leader Silvio Berlusconi (centre), set to return to government with Matteo Salvini and Giorgia Meloni. Will they be forming a governmnt together after this election? Photo by Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP

All three leaders of the right-wing alliance have called for Italy to adopt a ‘French-style’ system which would mean the president is directly elected by voters,, instead of by lawmakers as is currently the case. This would mean changing the constitution.

Which scenario is likely?

If the most recent polls are to be believed, the right is on course to easily win a simple majority and possibly go on to reach the two-thirds threshold.

Talk of a super majority came about as the last polls (published two weeks before election day, when a polling blackout began) showed the right-wing alliance was just two or three percent away from achieving the share of the vote needed to give it a ‘super’ or qualified majority of the seats in both houses of parliament.

The right was polling 19 percent ahead of the centre-left bloc, and will need a lead of at least 21-22 percent to secure a qualified majority in both houses, according to projections by Youtrend/CattaneoZanetto & Co.

READ ALSO: An introductory guide to the Italian political system

A two-thirds majority is “possible” for the center-right “if the advantage in both chambers is around 21-22 percent,” Youtrend’s analysis explains.

Such a majority then becomes “probable” with “an advantage over the center-left of more than + 26 percent”, it says.

The winning alliance will need a majority in both houses of parliament, the Chamber of Deputies and Senate, and taking a majority in the Senate is forecast to be more of a challenge.

Recent reforms mean parliament has shrunk by a third: there will now be 400 MPs in the Chamber instead of up to 630, and 200 Senators instead of 315.

A view of the Italian Chamber of Deputies.

Following constitutional reform in 2020, the number of deputies will go from 630 to 400 in the upcoming elections. Photo by Yara NARDI / AFP

Italy has a fiendishly complicated hybrid voting system: about 36 percent of seats in both houses of parliament are allocated in a first-past-the-post vote in single-member constituencies, while the rest are elected by proportional representation via party lists of candidates.

If you want to see what this looks like, try out Sky TG24’s seggiometro, or ‘seatometer’, which allows you to visualise how different election results would translate to seats in parliament.

Is there any chance of a surprise result?

This definitely hasn’t been an election campaign that has kept us on the edge of our seats. The right-wing bloc led by Giorgia Meloni has been expected to win all along – but voter sentiment has apparently shifted somewhat in the two weeks since polling blackout began.

Since the publication of opinion polls ended, support for the left-leaning Five Star Movement appears to have surged while the hard-right League is flagging, according to pollsters interviewed by Reuters this week.

Most said the prediction that the right will take a majority in both houses of parliament and form the next government remains by far the most likely outcome, even if it has been thrown into doubt somewhat by Five Star’s rise.

With Italy’s famously unpredictable politics, and many voters expected to make their minds up only on the day itself, nothing can ever really be ruled out.