Italy: A Tour de Force from Renzi

Published on April 29, 2015

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has requested a confidence vote from the Chamber of Deputies on the passage of the new electoral law – also known as “Italicum.” The law already passed the Senate hurdle on March 12 this year, a big victory for the Prime Minister as his majority there is shakier than in the Chamber, and will be voted today and tomorrow by the lower house Deputies.

*** Despite a small rebellion within Renzi’s own PD party – the reason why Renzi originally decided to request the confidence vote – the Italicum will be fully approved by the Lower Chamber tomorrow. ***

*** Within the PD, some members of the internal opposition (the so-called “area riformista”) will indeed vote against the law. But the coalition supporting the government can count on a total of 403 votes, and with 316 needed for an absolute majority, a few “nays” will not jeopardize the final green light for the “Italicum” – and will certainly not put into question the life of the current government. ***

*** Together with a large part of the majority, some members of Forza Italia, who are technically in the “opposition”, might also vote in favor of the legislation. Some of these belong to the wing of Forza Italia that originally negotiated the electoral law with Renzi and were forced by their leader to withdraw their support after the Presidential vote in January when Renzi effectively cut former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi out of the negotiations. ***

All this will only serve to strengthen Renzi’s hand to govern going forward, as well as lay the much needed longer-term groundwork for a more stable electoral process for Italy.

A Rude Awakening for PD Rebels

Renzi received a welcome surprise yesterday when a preliminary secret vote on the constitutional legitimacy of the Italicum resulted in more than 380 votes in favor. But hopes among the PD’s dissidents that the Prime Minister would be comforted by such a showing to allow an open discussion on amendments were crushed later on when the government announced it would go ahead and ask for the confidence vote anyway.

While some political commentators maintain that Renzi’s request for a confidence vote is a signal of weakness – a leader incapable of controlling his own troops – the fact that it is likely to pass with so many “dissidents” not daring risk an election is an implicit acknowledgement Renzi’s popularity. And already some of them have backtracked and thrown their support to the government, and while a few will hang tough and vote “no,” they will do so only with the full knowledge that their vote will be no more than a symbolic gesture not costing the Prime Minister anything.

Renzi’s position in Italian politics is today unprecedented, somehow resembling the one former Prime Minister Berlusconi enjoyed during his glory days, except Renzi has nothing to fear from a turbulent past or bombastic private life. He is in total control of the PD – although, paradoxically, not of the parliamentary majority which he inherited from former Secretary Pierluigi Bersani – and has ruled with Machiavellian tactics over the rubbles of the center-right, with Berlusconi now semi-retired and other leaders such as the Northern League’s Matteo Salvini still fighting for relevance.

Once the obstacle of the electoral law is cleared, Renzi will still need to pass the constitutional reform transforming the Senate into a regional chamber, with members appointed by local councils. This will probably take more time than originally thought because of the lack of support from other parties and the need therefore for a confirmatory referendum once the double approval of the two chambers (two voting rounds per chamber) is obtained, likely around early 2016.

After that, all bets are open on possible snap elections called by Renzi, from a position of even greater strength.

Outline of the Italicum

The new law, the Italicum, is likely to implicitly increase the government’s powers by ensuring the winning party or coalition in an election obtains a true majority within a single elective chamber with legislative power. The Senate for its part will be reduced by the above mentioned constitutional reform – still to be approved – to a “House of Lords,” with limited powers and legitimacy.

It will enhance a proportional system, with a majority premium (55%) awarded to the party or coalition that reaches 40% in the first round, and if there is none, a second round between the two highest voted parties or coalitions, with a majority premium for the winner then set at 53%.

There will be smaller constituencies and smaller lists, but the main candidates – the ones whose election will be guaranteed – will still be chosen by party leaders. This will in turn guarantee the government a tighter grip on the Parliamentary majority once it is in place. 

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