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‘Hand-to-hand’ combat in Italy’s election

BOLOGNA, Italy — When Italians head to the polls on March 4, they’ll be voting under an electoral system that’s not only new, but radically different from what came before it.

For the first time since 2001, Italians will cast a ballot not just for a party, but for a candidate in a first-past-the-post race in their local constituency. This has several important implications.

The new law — nicknamed the Rosatellum after Ettore Rosato, the Democratic Party parliamentary leader who proposed it — introduced a mixed system. The center-left Democratic Party (PD) passed the law with the support of the center-right Forza Italia and the Northern League.

In this new system, 37 percent of the parliament (232 out of 630 seats in the Chamber of Deputies and 109 out of 315 seats in the Senate) is elected locally, with the seat going to the candidate with the most votes in his or her constituency. The remaining 63 percent of seats are allocated proportionally via the use of short closed lists, with a small number selected by Italians living abroad.

The new system will force parties to compete in closely contested races constituency by constituency, investing heavily in dozens of “micro-campaigns” all over the country. Unlike recent legislative elections, where the proportional system favored media-centered campaigns and left out any role for door-to-door activism and a ground game, in 2018 parties will have to “fight hand-to-hand in the constituencies,” as former Prime Minister and current Democratic Party leader Matteo Renzi put it.

Advanced digital mobilization and social media targeting tools will have to be buttressed with efficient bottom-up ground organization, direct contact with voters, flyers, events and rallies. “Social media will be the air force, but you can’t win constituencies without infantry,” said Luca Morisi, the Northern League’s web guru.

Italy has a long tradition of ground campaigning, rooted in the practice of 20th century mass parties, most notably the Christian Democrats and the Communist Party. In 1958, according to the Istituto Cattaneo research institute, the Communists had 1.8 million members. The Christian Democrats were close behind with 1.6 million.

Mass parties in post-war Italy could rely on tentacular organization and a strong on-the-ground presence. The Communist Party had 11,000 local offices, its goal being “an office for every bell tower.”

Today, the party structure is by any measure considerably weaker. The PD has lost 400,000 members from more than 800,000 in 2009. A study conducted by research group Candidate & Leader Selection in 2014 found that 30 percent of Northern League party members were not active in the movement.

Crucially, under the new electoral system, a vote for a candidate in the first-past-the-post constituency will be automatically transferred to the supporting coalition and vice versa, giving local candidates the power to proportionally influence the performance of parties and coalitions on the national level.

The most obvious beneficiary is Berlusconi, who has already demonstrated his talent at pulling together conservative alliances.

This puts a premium on the quality of the candidates. Unlike the last three legislative elections, in which voters cast ballots for parties, the new ballot will highlight the names of the candidates. That means parties will have to work hard to ensure that prominent candidates are assigned to run in key constituencies to drive up support for the coalition.

Previously, this would have been an advantage for the center-left, which has traditionally had a deep bench of local luminaries, such as party leaders, mayors and governors. Recently, however, the party’s local dominance has faded as prominent PD candidates have fallen in municipal elections across the country, even in the party’s traditional strongholds like Turin, Genoa, Livorno, Venice and Rome.

The system also provides an advantage to parties that band together in political coalitions to ensure their joint candidate gets the most votes.

The most obvious beneficiary is former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who has already demonstrated his talent at pulling together conservative alliances, managing to convince the two most prominent right-wing parties, the Northern League and the Brothers of Italy, to join him in a coalition.

Ironically, given that it proposed the law, Renzi’s Democratic Party seems to be struggling with establishing a coalition with other left-wing parties.

The anti-establishment 5Star Movement, which opposed the changes, has been historically reluctant to enter into any type of agreement with traditional parties.

A YouTrend simulation suggests that the most likely outcome of the election is a hung parliament. Berlusconi’s coalition has been gaining ground, giving it a shot at an outright majority. But our analysis suggests that roughly 70 out of the 232 first-past-the-post seats in the lower chamber are up for grabs in swing constituencies, where no coalition can boast a significant edge. In short, the election result is up in the air.

Lorenzo Pregliasco, a lecturer at the School of Political Sciences, University of Bologna, is co-founder of Quorum, an Italian political strategy firm, and YouTrend, a data analysis magazine. Matteo Cavallaro is senior election analyst for Quorum and YouTrend.

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