Yesterday the Italian Constitutional Court decided that parts of the new electoral law for elections to Italy’s lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, which came into effect as recently as 2016, are invalid. The court ruled that a core element of the new electoral law, a run-off vote between the two strongest parliamentary fractions, is against the constitution. However, the rule that any party attracting at least 40% of the vote should receive a majority-building bonus is to be kept. If the latter condition is not fulfilled, then the principle of pure proportional representation applies again.
Taking account the amendments, the judges of the High Court declared the electoral law as applicable as of immediately so theoretically nothing would stand in the way of early new elections. The proponents of as early a poll as possible greeted the announcement with enthusiasm. In particular, the left-wing populist Five Stars Movement (M5S) is in favour of holding new elections as soon as possible. The populists want a change of government and hope to benefit from opinion poll results that are currently in their favour. Members of Renzi’s inner circle have also spoken out repeatedly in favour of early new elections as they hope Renzi will be able to return to the office of Prime Minister as soon as possible. But the current head of government, Gentiloni, intends to continue the transitional government until the end of the regular period of office (2018).
After the rejection of the constitutional reform referendum, however, President Mattarella already declared that new elections will only be possible when the electoral law for both chambers of Parliament has been harmonised. Admittedly, the current court ruling has contributed to a partial adjustment. But while the Senate is elected under proportional representation legislation, this is not unrestrictedly the case for the Chamber of Deputies. So Mattarella could force the government to make further adjustments to the electoral laws for both chambers before making the way free for possible new elections.
Against this background, an early election looks possible at the earliest in summer or autumn this year. At the moment, opinion polls suggest a neck-and-neck race between the ruling PD and the populist Five Stars Movement, whereby the former has only a wafer thin lead with 30% of the vote. As things stand, it is very unlikely that one of these two parties could reach the 40% threshold and thus obtain the absolute majority in the Chamber of Deputies.
So coalition alliances are likely to remain necessary. While M5S previously ruled out cooperating with established political forces it has now adopted a somewhat more pragmatic position. An indication of this is the ultimately unsuccessful attempt mounted by M5S leader, Beppe Grillo, to have his party join the liberal fraction in the European Parliament. An alliance with the liberal-conservative Forza Italia, which former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has led again since summer last year, does, however, look extremely unlikely – especially as this alliance would need more partners to achieve a government majority.
So it is likely that Italy’s potentially complete return to proportional representation will also mean a return to a cumbersome system of government. As in the past, pragmatic consensus alliances between many fractions will make it extremely difficult to cooperate on concrete measures. In addition, the equal powers of both chambers of parliament, which it has not been possible to eliminate because of the failed referendum, will continue to stand in the way of more efficient government. This preservation of the status quo is also likely to continue to obstruct the reform process that is needed to eliminate structural barriers to growth.