Center for Electoral Forensics

Berlusconi Loses in Italy

[Flag of Italy]Once again, Italians headed to the polls to elect a parliament. The House of Representatives has 630 deputies are elected through party-list proportional representation from each of Italy's 20 regions. Since the founding of the Second Republic in 1994, old political parties vanished, to be replaced by politicians. Millionaire Silvio Berlusconi became Prime Minister based on the coalition he formed around himself. Since 1994, political parties tend to form and reform to reflect the dominant politicians available.

How did that work for Italy in this election?


A beach in Cefalu, Sicily

The Italian Republic has an interesting electoral system shaped by its many fallen governments. It takes 316 seats for a majority in the House of Representatives, the lower house of parliament. It is exceedingly rare for this to happen. Candidates are elected through party-list proportional representation at the district level. Thresholds are set high enough to encourage parties to form coalitions. Furthermore, should no coalition win a majority of the seats (the usual case), the electoral system grants sufficient seats to ensure the plurality coalition becomes the majority coalition. This has the effect of making the proportion of seats held by the coalitions in the House to not reflect the proportion of the vote won in the general election.

For instance, in 2008, Silvio Berlusconi's bloc received 47% of the votes cast. Yet, it received 55% of the seats in the House of Representatives, a net gain of 8%. Walter Veltroni's bloc received 38% of the votes cast and 39% of the seats, only a 1% gain. This system is very generous to the large coalitions; it discriminates against the small.

The February 24, 2013, election illustrates this point more clearly. Berlusconi's bloc received 29% of the votes, but only 20% of the seats in the House. Pier Luigi Bersani's coalition received 30% of the vote, but 54% of the seats.

Fair? Perhaps not. This system, however, does ensure that the winning coalition becomes the majority coalition in the House. In turn, this ensures governments are more stable and more likely to last their full term.

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The difference between the top two coalitions was a mere 0.36%. Opinion polls also had the two coalitions within the margin of error. Such a situation gives a lot of power to spoiler candidates. This election had comedian Beppe Grillo's populist Five Star Movement (Movimento 5 Stelle; M5S). Grillo was able to turn his fame into political power, netting 26% of the votes cast. Without Grillo's campaign, would Berlusconi's bloc have been able to gain another 0.37%, thereby receiving a majority of the seats? Probably not.

The Five Star's message centered on public water, sustainable mobility, development, connectivity, and environmentalism. These are hardly Berlusconi's platform. It is more likely that Grillo's candidacy helped Berlusconi close the gap with Bersani.

Official electoral body: Central Election Service (Ministry of the Interior)
Presidential election: February 24, 2013 Official Results