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Italy’s Election Reform Kerfuffles

Heading in a better direction?

Italy’s electoral law reform process is hotting up. Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is going all out to pass the election law he thinks Italy needs and most of Italy’s major opposition parties as well as a contingent of his very own Partito Democratico party are up in arms over what he is trying to achieve.

UPDATE: April 28th, 2015 – The 5 Star Movement was not kicking much fuss over the reform before but it certainly is now.

From the benches occupied by the Movement in Italy’s lower house parliament today, Italy’s Prime Minister, who is to use a confidence vote to speed the reform through, was accused of being a ‘fascist’.

Italy’s other parties, in heated exchanges, also expressed their distinct dislike of the reform.

Italy’s president and guardian of the nation’s constitution, is keeping rather silent over the reform though, as leader of the Five Star Movement Beppe Grillo has noted.

Other MPs are claiming the reform will be the death of democracy in Italy.

Silvio Berlusconi’s mob is most unhappy too.

Are the ructions mere theatre or are some of Italy’s politicians genuinely concerned? Who knows. Anything is possible in Machiavellian Italy.

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Silvio Berlusconi, the leader of the slowly dissolving Forza Italia party, stated today that he would oppose Mr Renzi’s election law reforms with all his might. He, won’t, however, appear in public because he fears for his life as he believes he’s an ISIS/ISIL target. Mr Berlusconi went further in his criticism and called Mr Renzi authoritarian which is a little rich seeing has he himself did not tolerate any dissent from within the ranks of his own party party. Anyway, Mr Berlusconi is not at all happy. He fears that should the reform become reality it will greatly reduce the chance of his party and its right leaning allies of ever being elected again. If Italy’s right remains in its current state, he will most probably be proven right. Mr Berlusconi will also be worrying that he will no longer be able to protect his business interests.

As well as what passes for Italy’s right getting into one enormous tizzy over the electoral law reform, Italy’s last remaining truly, or almost, left wing party – SEL – is also determined to prevent the reform from going through. Seeing as SEL is a minority party, its leader knows that the reform will significantly reduce the chances of its members being elected into future Italian parliaments.

The Minority Party Killing Threshold

The current version of the electoral reform seeks to establish a 3% threshold for smaller parties. Without 3% of the vote, smaller parties will not be able to sit in Italy’s parliament.

SEL, which, according to recent opinion polls, enjoys the support of around 4% of Italy’s electorate, is hovering on the brink of oblivion as indeed are a host of other tiny political parties which in total would be lucky to garner 3% of the vote should elections be held in the near future.

To all intents and purposes, Mr Renzi’s election law reform, should it come to pass, will put an end to microscopic Italian political parties; such parties will be forced to combine to form larger political parties, join existing parties, or face the prospect of extinction.

While virtually eliminating Italy’s tiny, though often overly influential, parties will be good for the stability of future Italian governments, others in Italy believe that minorities will lose representation. In terms of democracy this will not be good, however, seeing as larger parties will no longer be forced into compromises to keep their minute though vociferous coalition partner parties content, more effective legislation should emerge. As things stand at the moment in Italy, governments have to attempt to keep all of the people happy all of the time which, as we all well know, is more or less impossible.

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Governments which are not beholden to flocks of sling-wielding Davids should be able to pass legislation that is not watered down to the extent that its effects are more or less rendered negligible as has often tended to be the case in Italy. By weeding out the wee parties Mr Renzi claims future governments of Italy will be able govern more effectively and not risk collapsing every five minutes as a result of falling out with some minuscule grumpy coalition partner or other.

Good On Paper

On paper, the new electoral system should indeed lead to more stable governments in Italy. In fact, Italy does appear to be heading towards the same situation as has existed in Britain for many years. In other words, Italy should, if the reform comes to be, end up with two or three political parties and no more. The leaders of these larger parties will be able to impose the party line on their members and if certain members start contesting policy decisions, they will most probably be asked to leave. With larger political parties, bringing members to heel or dismissing the dissenters will be easier than compromising to laws death in attempts to keep coalition parties content.

While such an approach to the management of political parties in Britain is normal, in Italy it is regarded as distinctly authoritarian and in the Italian mindset, this conjures of frightening images of dictator Benito Mussolini. Indeed, Mr Renzi has already been accused of being the new Mussolini.

Shrugging Renzi

Mr Renzi has been shrugging off the attacks and is determined to forge ahead with his electoral law plans.

There’s a slight danger that the electoral law reform will be declared unconstitutional, as indeed was the previous law which Berlusconi and his cronies cobbled together however Italy’s President Sergio Mattarella, who was Mr Renzi’s choice, should be keeping a weather eye on constitutionality issues.

So far Mr Mattarella has resisted calls for him to intervene from those who dislike Mr Renzi’s electoral law reform proposals. This means that the reform may well end up becoming reality even if it could see Mr Renzi’s PD party beaten at the polls.

What Mr Renzi appears to be banking on is that Italy’s economy will recover sufficiently by the time elections are called – in 2016 or 2017, possibly – for his party to win.

At present though, the pace of Italy’s recovery is proving so slow as to be virtually imperceptible. This may change by the end of 2015, or at least that is what Prime Minister Renzi will be hoping.

If, however, Italy’s economy does not pick up, then Italy may well end up being run by the party of firebrand ex-comic Beppe Grillo: the Five Star Movement. Why might the Five Star Movement win? Because the new electoral system will involve two rounds. If, at the first round, no single party or list wins 40% of the vote, then a second ballot will be held. In view of falling voter turnout levels in Italy, some suspect that in the run off ballot, the Five Star Movement may win, possibly because the Movement’s supporters are more likely to head for the polls a second time than are supporters of other parties. Though whether this will turn out to be the case in practice is an unknown for now.

That they appear to stand a good chance of winning future elections could explain why the Five Star Movement, which, publicly, is not overly happy with the electoral reform – the Movement believes Italy has other priorities – is not kicking up quite as much fuss over the proposed electoral reform as Italy’s old guard political parties.

At present, support for the Five Star Movement is growing and by the time elections are held, the Movement may stand a chance of winning. Whether this would be good for Italy remains to be seen. Either the Five Star Movement would turn Italy around, or it may drag Italy to a new low – the fear of which is possibly what Mr Renzi is hoping will convince Italians to select him and his party. While Mr Renzi may not win elections initially, he may win in the future if Five Star Movement government creates chaos.

Stable Government May Not Equal Competent Government

One thing the electoral reform does not guarantee is the quality of government. Cracking down on corruption and the number of ethically challenged politicians – something which is apparently in the pipeline – may help ensure Italy ends up with governments composed of competent politicians. We shall see.

For now, the election reform battle rages on. Behind the battle lies an immense power struggle. The risk is that Italy may end up in the hands of yet another band of ethically challenged lawmakers who tend to pursue their own interests and not those of Italy as a whole. To think this is, of course, to be exceptionally cynical. In his defence, this Italy watcher assures you that after you have lived in this country for the best part of two decades and followed the nation’s warped politics, you too will end up becoming exceptionally cynical, or else you will end up feeling “comfortably numb” which is the situation much of Italy’s population now finds itself in.

Will Mr Renzi managed to restore the credibility of Italy’s political class? Well, that’s his next major task.

Is Italy heading in a better direction or is it heading for disaster? What do you think? Answers in a comment, if you wish.

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