Electoral Laws

   When Italy was unified in 1861, it inherited the electoral laws of the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia, which elected its Parliament through a dual ballot system of single-member constituencies. The Piedmontese system remained in force until 1882, when Italy moved to a plural-member constituency system in which, according to size, constituencies returned two to five deputies and the elector had as many votes as there were candidates to elect. This experiment failed, and a return to the former system took place in 1891, although the threshold for entering the second ballot was now reduced to one-sixth of the votes cast instead of the 30 percent required by the former law.
   Universal male suffrage for men over 30 years of age was enacted in Italy in 1912. In 1919, Francesco Saverio Nitti introduced proportional representation, a move that allowed Benito Mussolini’s nascent Fascist party to gain a foothold in Parliament in 1921. Once in power, Mussolini introduced the “Acerbo Law” in 1923. Any party gaining a plurality in the popular vote was guaranteed twothirds of the seats in Parliament. In 1928 a plebiscitary system was introduced whereby citizens were limited to voting yea or nay to an approved “big list” (listone) of approved candidates.
   Fully free elections with universal suffrage were introduced in Italy in 1946. In 1953, the Democrazia Cristiana/Christian Democracy party (DC) tried to amend the system of proportional representation used in the elections of 1948 by introducing legislation (swiftly dubbed the “swindle law”) that gave any coalition that obtained over 50 percent of the vote a substantial “prize” in seats. In the 1953 elections, however, the DC and its allies failed to reach the 50 percent threshold, and the law was never applied. Subsequently, Italy chose its representatives by proportional representation. For the Chamber of Deputies, election was by a convoluted form of the party-list system that guaranteed representation in Parliament to all but the very smallest formations and that awarded seats in strict proportion to the number of votes cast. The result was the fragmentation of the party system and the prevalence of unstable coalition governments. For the Senate, a different system of proportional representation granted greater representation to the larger parties but still meant that the upper chamber contained a plethora of miniparties. An interesting peculiarity of elections for the Italian Senate was—and is—that only adults over 25 years of age may vote.
   In the 1980s, dissatisfaction with the electoral system gave birth to a popular movement for electoral reform and to successful referendums on electoral reform in June 1991 and April 1993. In the general elections of March 1994, April 1996, and May 2001, both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate were elected by an electoral law that reserved 75 percent of the seats in both chambers for direct election in single-member constituencies and 25 percent of the seats for election by proportional representation. A German style “threshold” excluded parties that obtained less than 4 percent of the vote from Parliament. This law worked less well than many expected. Instead of leading to the development of a two-party system on the British or American model, Italy now has a “twoalliance” system of parties (more akin to France’s Fifth Republic) in which two broad-based coalitions of mostly small parties confront each other. Italy returned to proportional representation for the general elections of April 2006, although the winning coalition in the Chamber of Deputies is entitled to a limited “majority prize” to encourage governability.

Historical Dictionary of Modern Italy. . 2007.

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