Small Parties Wary of Renzi-Berlusconi Electoral Reforms

Italian leaders agree to a new election law that could disadvantage smaller parties.

Florence mayor Matteo Renzi delivers a speech in Sulmona, Italy, September 30, 2012
Florence mayor Matteo Renzi delivers a speech in Sulmona, Italy, September 30, 2012 (Google+/Matteo Renzi)

Italy’s politics may soon be reshaped fundamentally — if Silvio Berlusconi and Matteo Renzi, the leaders of the country’s biggest right and left-wing parties, get their way.

The two agreed this weekend to reform Italy’s election law that left neither bloc with a governing majority last year, resulting in months of bickering before a left-right coalition was formed which has since been unable to produce major reforms. Their deal also aims to change the balance of power between the two legislative branches that has often led to weak majorities in the Senate, hampering the durability of recent governments.

Few politicians hailed the agreement which they believe could be unfair to smaller parties as they would struggle to reenter parliament. Supporters, including many in Renzi’s Partito Democratico, have also been critical their new leader for reaching out to Berlusconi, a former prime minister who expelled from Senate in November following a conviction for tax fraud. Gianni Cuperlo, Renzi’s opponent in a leadership contest last year, resigned as party president after criticizing his leader’s proposal.

Under the new law, a party or coalition of parties that wins 35 percent of the votes or more would automatically get a majority of the seats in the lower chamber of parliament. If neither party or alliance wins 35 percent support, a runoff would be held between the two that got the most votes. Parties would also have to cross a 5 to 8 percent threshold to qualify for seats.

Combined with the overhaul of the upper chamber, which would lose its veto power over legislation and be composed of regional deputies, the reforms would effectively give the biggest party the power to govern unopposed.

It would also prevent small parties from running outside coalitions. The separatist Lega Nord immediately rejected the proposal but concern arose in all minor parties, including the centrists who supported the reelection of former prime minister Mario Monti last year. Deputy Prime Minister Angelino Alfano’s Nuovo Centrodestra might just pass the threshold. It currently polls at 6.2 percent.

Where Prime Minister Enrico Letta welcomed the deal, Alfano, who broke with Berlusconi to form his own party last year, cautioned that the reforms would be “impossible without us,” adding, “We want coalitions and not just two parties, which goes counter to Italian history.” Yet he signed the bill without amending the critical election threshold, paving the way for its eventual adoption.

Former comedian Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement was also critical even if, under the proposed law, it could have won even more support than it did. If a runoff had been held between the Partito Democratico and the anti-establishment movement last year, there is a good chance the latter would have won.

Currently, the Five Star Movement polls at 21 percent, close to Berlusconi’s new party, Forza Italia, but trailing Renzi’s Democrats who are at 34 percent.

If the bill becomes law, it would be one of the biggest political reforms in Italy’s republican history. It would end the country’s perfect bicameralism as well as the proliferation of small parties that has often compromised government stability while only serving parochial interests.

Renzi has taken a risk by working with Berlusconi, who is widely despised on the left, to immediately safeguard the much awaited reforms. He also increasingly dictates the government’s agenda, overshadowing Letta, and has further distanced his party from allies on the left who would clearly be damaged by his bill.

The Florence mayor, like Berlusconi, is in the unusual position of proposing comprehensive reforms from outside the government, even from outside parliament. This allows him to also criticize government policy which should improve his party’s chances in the next election.

Letta’s administration is likely to last at least through the Italian presidency of the European Union in the second half of this year, meaning elections could be called, at their earliest, in 2015. Renzi has until then to persuade disappointed Democratic Party voters to give him another chance while keep disgruntled members of his left-wing at bay — all without putting too much strain on the coalition.