Thursday

21st Sep 2017

Analysis

Italian ruling opens way for new elections

  • The Chamber of Deputies. No party currently clears the 40 percent threshold that would translate into a solid majority and offer Italy the prospect of more stable government. (Photo: Manfred Heyde)

Italian judges have delivered a highly anticipated ruling that simplifies the path towards an early dissolution of parliament and elections this year.

The Constitutional Court struck down some elements of the so-called Italicum election law – a piece of legislation pushed through by former prime minister Matteo Renzi that aimed to create stable governments by changing voting rules for the lower house of parliament, the Chamber of Deputies.

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Renzi's critics argued that the changes, which included a second round of voting and bonus seats for the biggest party, would put too much power into the hands of the winner.

But the judges refrained from completely tearing down Renzi's law, which would have forced parliament to engage in a far more arduous process of rewriting voting rules from scratch.

They scrapped the second-round ballot and limited the ability of top candidates to run in multiple constituencies, turning the law into a straight proportional representation system with a 3 percent threshold for entering parliament.

“It’s a sensible ruling. Judges kept their meddling to a minimum,” Francesco Clementi, a public law professor close to Renzi and his Democratic Party (PD), told EUobserver.

“We now have a constitutionally sound election law, ready to be used for immediate elections,” the leader of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S), comedian Beppe Grillo, wrote on his blog, which he uses to set the party’s agenda. “There are no more excuses,” he added.

Stumbling blocks

Politics had gone into virtual standstill ahead of the verdict. Last month, when Renzi resigned following a stinging defeat in constitutional referendum, a weak, transitional government led by former foreign minister Paolo Gentiloni was installed to manage the country for the tail-end of the parliamentary term, running until early 2018 at the latest.

Though Renzi, the M5S and two other anti-establishment parties – the right-wing Northern League and Brothers of Italy (FdI) – clamoured for a snap election, president Sergio Mattarella made it clear that he would not call them while dysfunctional election laws were still in place, leaving Italy’s electoral calendar dependent on the Constitutional Court.

Yet, even if the Constitutional Court’s findings can be immediately applied into law, there are still a few stumbling blocks before Italian voters could be called to the ballot box.

Voting rules for the upper chamber, the Senate, should be aligned with what has been established for the Chamber to minimise the risk of elections producing conflicting results and a hung parliament.

No solid majority

Senate election rules – themselves the result of a Constitutional Court ruling from 2014 – also envisage a proportional system, but with no majority bonus for the winner and a few other, more arcane differences.

Most observers agree that the easiest solution for lawmakers would be to apply the corrected Italicum to the upper chamber, but this would require a parliamentary passage fraught with risks.

“It could take as little as two to three weeks,” and clear the way for elections in the spring, the M5S’s spokesman on constitutional affairs, Danilo Toninelli, told EUobserver.

No party currently clears the 40 percent threshold that would translate into a solid majority and offer Italy the prospect of more stable government.

The most recent opinion poll averages calculated by the Termometro Politico website have the PD on 30.3 percent, the M5S on 27.7 percent, the Northern League on 13.1 percent, Silvio Berlusconi’s mainstream right-wing Forza Italia opposition on 12.7 percent and far-right FdI on 4.6 percent.

Flawed architecture

M5S has a long-standing promise not to join with other parties. If it reneged on this, it could form a formidable alliance with the Northern League and FdI, which could conceivably find common ground on a platform to take Italy out of the euro.

Grillo’s party is no stranger to U-turns – this month it tried to jump from the eurosceptic to the pro-EU liberal group in the European Parliament, then rowed back to its original position.

But M5S stalwarts are insisting that they will stick to their no-coalitions policy in Italy, and that they will come to power on their own.

“The Five Star Movement cannot cut deals with these other parties, the ones which have plunged the country into its current state of misery, and have led people to start voting for us. It would be simply against our fundamental beliefs,” Toninelli told this website.

Whichever party or coalition comes out on top after the next elections, it is likely to be under pressure to stop tinkering with electoral and constitutional arrangements, a constant distraction in the last three decades.

Yet it remains to be seen if more bread-and-butter issues, like reining in a huge public debt and kick-starting growth and jobs, can be tackled effectively with such flawed political structures.

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