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Berlusconi to end the Italian 'two-party' system?

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Default profile picture Morag Young

A few months before the general election is due to be held, the Italian Prime Minister wants to change the electoral rules to return to proportional representation - and all the instability he himself fought. Here's why.

Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi can be accused of many things: cronyism, contempt for the judiciary, conflict of interests between his role as leader of state and media mogul... But in truth, at least until now, he has done some good: he has enabled the emergence of a two-party system in Italy after years of idiocies and instability unequalled in Europe.

Mattarellum, a worthwhile system

When Berlusconi first entered the political field a few months before the 1994 elections, the millionaire was able to create from scratch a centre-right coalition, Polo delle Liberta. His coalition gave voters an alternative to the centre-left coalition which had been anticipating victory in the absence of a worthy opponent. The result was surprising: Polo delle Liberta filled a gap which had been empty since the Christian Democrats dissolved; it gained a majority in Parliament and, therefore, presidency of the Council.

Admittedly, this government did not last long because of a clash with the trade unions over pension reform, amongst other things. But, in opposition, Berlusconi managed to consolidate his coalition, bringing the right-wing Northern League back into the fold to create a decisive alliance which led to electoral victory in 2001, a victory which this time would create the longest-lived government in the history of the Italian Republic, and probably the first to complete the entire five year cycle of government foreseen in the Italian Constitution. However, if all this has been possible, Berlusconi owes it first and foremost to the Mattaerellum electoral system, a predominantly majority vote system that Italians chose in a 1993 referendum to replace the old system of proportional representation. Indeed, proportional representation had simply guaranteed unstable governments, such as the first Andreotti government in 1972 which only lasted nine days.

Personal power over stability

But today, the leader of the Italian centre-right seems to want to destroy the important international credibility which Italy has so laboriously achieved - not least thanks to Berlusconi himself - since 1994. He is currently trying to pass electoral reform which foresees a return to proportional representation. The bill has already been approved by the lower house and will progress to the Senate for discussion. Admittedly, the new system foresees a (slim) “majority prize" for the winning coalition, but the effects would still be devastating for the stability of Italian democracy. Not only because parties would become more inward-looking, but also because it would favour the emergence of a third coalition of Christian Democrats which would become vital for the functioning of any government coalition - thereby destroying the two-party system.

What is even more surprising is that this reform is being proposed little over six months before the 2006 elections, and without the agreement of the opposition. Berlusconi's objective is in fact to confuse the strategy of the leader of the centre-left, Romano Prodi, which, from the very beginning, has been based on the majority vote system. Prodi, former President of the European Commission, is not the leader of a single party but of a wide coalition formed from different political groupings. Berlusconi's move therefore appears aimed at giving Prodi, who, according to the polls, will win the elections, a poisoned chalice. Prodi has declared that this law aims to "make sure that whoever wins wins badly and governs even worse." Berlusconi's aim is to break Prodi's strategy and make it impossible for him to exercise power under a proportional system which, de facto, is aimed at creating instability. The problem is that it will again be Italy which bears the brunt of these political intrigues, an Italy which is already in decline in terms of competitiveness and reform - and its credibility in the European context.

Translated from Se Berlusconi affossa il bipolarismo all’italiana