Commentary. Over the last few weeks, the Democratic Party has seen the rebirth of an incomprehensible nostalgia for the ‘majoritarian’ system. But what does that mean, exactly?

Why the return to proportional parliament is the high road to follow

After “cutting” the number of MPs, the majority has signed a political document in which, among other things, they commit to a December deadline for initiating a joint project for electoral reform. It is doubtful that this deadline is a plausible one.

Most likely, this will take much longer. However, it’s still possible to use this time productively to try to make some progress in the debate, clearing the ground of the imprecise notions, commonplaces and sheer nonsense muddying up the discussion on the issue of elections, which contribute greatly to the fact that public opinion has become fed up with discussing these issues. For example, one might start by pointing out that talking about a “proportional” or “majoritarian” system means literally nothing without further clarification.

We must start from a core premise: that the proponents of a particular electoral reform presuppose—often implicitly—their own view of ​​the future structure of the political system, a view which they consider to be desirable and possible. It’s not just immediate, short-sighted considerations that come into play (or rather, those who think only in such terms will very often find themselves forced to deal with the adverse or unexpected effects of reforms that they thought would accomplish only what they wanted): it is important to consider the medium- to long-term scenarios that the advocates for a certain reform would be encouraging, and the role that they think they can play within them. 

It is worth stressing that electoral systems do not in themselves determine the shape of the party system, but they can certainly orient it in one direction or another, and contain many incentives and constraints on the strategies that political actors will be able to conceive. So, today’s questions are the following: What does Italian democracy need? And what are the ideas actually animating the reformers from the Democratic Party?

Over the last few weeks, the Democratic Party has seen the rebirth of an incomprehensible nostalgia for the “majoritarian” system. But what does that mean, exactly? Do they think it’s possible to try to force the situation once again in order to create a bipolar configuration? Are they speculating that the future scenario would be that of a “new” Democratic Party-left-M5S pole, which would stand in opposition to the right? 

It would be good if they were explicit about this: the prospect of a strategic alliance between the left, the center-left and the M5S can and should be pursued on the basis of a political dialogue, and it is, of course, based on the absolutely necessary premise that the current government will work well and produce some tangible results.

However, this future prospect does not benefit at all (quite the opposite, in fact) if the new election law would “force” the parties into a rigid pattern of alliances. We are already seeing this today, with the regional elections: while the particular conditions in Umbria have made an alliance between the Democratic Party, the left and M5S possible, the difficulties such an alliance will face in Emilia-Romagna, or in Tuscany in the spring, are equally obvious. It is good that the dialogue with the M5S is continuing and the relationship is being strengthened, but this must take place on the basis of political and policy choices, and it must not end up crashing against the rocks of an electoral system that would force “organic alliances” which are not appropriate for the context, and perhaps will never be. The rigidity of majoritarian systems is an obstacle that is likely to be insurmountable.

And then, which majoritarian system are we talking about? The idea of runoff elections at the national level is again being floated, similar to the 2015 “Italicum” electoral law, with the winner taking a premium share: this would a real catastrophe, which would replicate the referendum-style logic of its ancestor. However, generally speaking, all systems which offer the winner a premium share are damaging: first of all, they will incentivize once more the formation of catch-all coalitions, in which marginal forces and powerful individuals would again have considerable power to blackmail: the very opposite of reducing fragmentation or guaranteeing “stability” for governments. Furthermore, both from the point of view of the left and that of the interests of Italian democracy, would it really be wise to push the remnants of a moderate pro-European center-right into the arms of Salvini?

However, a two-round system like that used in France is also very impractical: with the current multi-polar structure of the party system, and given that it is expected to remain so for a long time—and without the guiding framework of a semi-presidential republic, as in France’s case—it would only give rise to a patchwork of local coalitions, a random and shifting multitude of alliances, with no guarantee that any stable majorities would arise. Furthermore, this would make the level of representativeness of Parliament become entirely random, which would potentially lead to very serious distortions.

Finally, there are the plans that advocate for “mixed” systems like the current one, perhaps changing the most obvious dysfunctionalities of the previous “Rosatellum” reform. One fact must be emphasized: while the election of March 4, 2018, produced a Parliament with a low level of disproportionality, this was an entirely accidental outcome, due to two tendencies canceling each other out: single-member constituencies in the North won by the center-right, balanced with those in the South won by the M5S. The Rosatellum contains considerable potential for distorting the proportionality of representation: Prof. D’Alimonte has admitted this (although he actually considers it to be a great feature of the Rosatellum!). 

In my view, this is not what we need today. The “hybrid” systems don’t have much to recommend them: beside the lack of transparency and being too complicated for the voters (How many ballots do they have to fill in? Is ticket-splitting an option? Do those who want to reform the Rosatellum actually want to eliminate the main problematic point of this system, namely the “single vote” for both the proportional and majoritarian count?), they often end up compounding the defects of both approaches they try to combine.

In short, the right conclusion is that the best way forward would be that of a proportional system with a reasonable electoral threshold: this is the simplest and most rational way, and, most importantly, the one that will best meet the needs of Italian democracy. Furthermore, such a “return to proportional representation” would not be at all a sign of failure, something to fall back on in the absence of a better idea—it is, in fact, the royal road to try to get Italian democracy back into shape.

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