What role for political parties in the Italian electoral reforms? – Diego Praino and Gennaro Ferraiuolo

Bancada del Parlament italiàThe Italian electoral system, in the past twenty-five years, has been through a “saga”. We have seen referenda that have altered the rules, several reforms at the different levels of government, decisions of the Constitutional Court that modified the electoral formula, and so on.

Since the 1990s, the key idea has been “government stability”. That was only natural. In front of severe institutional and political problems—such as high fragmentation of government coalitions, frequent executive crises and dissolutions of Parliament, etc. —the main goal has been to achieve a system where it is possible to identify a clear winner who will be able to govern for a whole term. With this goal in mind, the Italian legislator has intervened several times at different levels of government, from the municipalities and provinces to the regions and the state.

But it seems that the way this idea has been put into practice does not really make sense. Are the electoral mechanisms adopted consistent with the “natural” political dynamics within a multi-party parliamentarism? The answer is probably “no”, and a thorough analysis of these reform processes and of how they worked is extremely useful to verify this claim.

We present such analysis in the paper “The role of political parties in the Italian electoral reforms”, published in the Revista Catalana de Dret Públic last December (No. 57, pages 154-165).

In this work we aim at answering two specific questions: a) How much have political parties influenced these electoral reforms as active actors? b) To what extent has the political context been taken into account when the electoral rules were modified? In other words, our aim is to understand what role the political parties have played in the electoral reforms that have characterized the Italian experience from 1993 to today.

Firstly, we present a theoretical analysis on how political parties, electoral rules and form of government relate to each other. Secondly, we go through the main stages of the reforms at local, regional and state level, focusing on the most important aspects introduced by the legislator with the aim of ensuring government stability. Finally, we verify the importance of the party context in the Italian electoral reforms, from the two perspectives mentioned above.

We may summarize that two main conclusions emerge from this work. Interestingly, they are not predictable.

The first is that, contrary to what one would expect, the active role played by parties as actors was, to some degree, marginal. As a matter of fact, they have been able to influence only partially the contents of these reforms. The true original pressure towards change derived from the legitimation crisis of the parties themselves—which was fueled also by a wide judicial investigation over corruption activities. In front of this crisis, a referendum movement entered the scene with the aim of changing radically the electoral system. Then, after that, the Parliament had to take into account the decisions of the Constitutional Court, which intervened declaring the constitutional illegitimacy of several aspects of the new laws that had been passed. In other words, it is possible to say that external factors outside the party dynamics were the “engine” of these reforms.

The second interesting conclusion is that the tendency towards a concentration of power in the hand of a “strong” leader of the executive has basically bypassed the mechanisms that characterize a multi-party parliamentary system, ignoring the role of party dynamics and the importance of political alliances after the elections. The Italian legislator has been trying to import, into the Italian system, the most significant aspects of a foreign model: the government stability and strong leadership of Westminster; while, in the meantime, the political arena experienced a process of personalization.

This is why it seems that the way the idea of “government stability” has been put into practice does not really make sense. As explained in our work, the Italian legislator has attempted to concentrate the power in the hands of the leader of the executive artificially, by using formal electoral mechanisms that, in reality, are “imposed” over a system that would naturally function differently. In addition, the idea of concentrating power could be contradictory in itself, especially at regional and state level, where the nature of the legislative competences involved and the possibility of modifying primary legislation entail the need of stricter controls over the decision-making bodies. The use of the legislative function might affect negatively the legitimation of the legal source itself and the representation function of the assemblies.

In conclusion, the electoral “saga” in Italy has been influenced by a political culture based on the idea that the electorate should vote for a specific person who, in case of electoral winning, will become the leader of the executive and have a secure control over the assembly. However, the mechanisms adopted to achieve government stability have ignored the parties themselves and their role within the dynamics of a parliamentarism based on a multi-party system.


Diego Praino

OsloMet – Oslo Metropolitan University

Gennaro Ferraiuolo

University of Naples Federico II

Aquest apunt és un resum de l’article acadèmic publicat a la Revista Catalana de Dret Públic número 57 (desembre 2018) amb el títol The role of political parties in the Italian electoral reforms

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