Guest Post by Manuel Alvarez-Rivera
Election Resources on the Internet
When the center-left coalition government of Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi nearly collapsed early last year, I wrote here that "the events [...] may turn out to be the prelude of a greater crisis further down the road." Well, eleven months later that's exactly what has come to pass: after just twenty months in office, Prodi resigned on January 24, having narrowly lost a vote of confidence in the Italian Senate (by 161 votes against to 156 in favor).
In many ways, history repeats itself. As in 1998, a crucial ally on the fringes of the ruling coalition (the far-left Refounded Communists in 1998, the right-of-center UDEUR of Clemente Mastella in 2008) deserts the government, depriving it of a parliamentary majority (in the Chamber of Deputies in '98, in the Senate this time around). Prodi nonetheless soldiers on, hoping to turn things around, but ultimately comes up short by a narrow margin (by one vote in 1998, by five votes today). Finally, in both instances the definitive collapse of the government comes about a year after an earlier crisis had been successfully defused.
Although Prodi easily won a vote of confidence this Wednesday in the Chamber of Deputies, where the center-left holds a substantial majority (even after the departure of UDEUR), the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies are co-equal legislative bodies, and Italian governments must have majority support in both houses of Parliament in order to remain in office.
At the time of writing, it is expected that President Giorgio Napolitano will hold consultations on Friday, January 25 concerning the formation of a new government. Nonetheless, if it's not possible to form a new government capable of commanding a majority in both the Senate and the Chamber, early elections would have to be called, presumably for both houses.
Opinion polls currently have the center-right opposition parties ahead by a large margin, and to no one's surprise their most prominent leader, former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is calling for early elections. However, President Napolitano appears to favor the formation of an interim, "institutional" government that would reform the proportional representation electoral law imposed by Berlusconi's government prior to the 2006 general election. Under the current system, parties with as little as two percent of the vote (and sometimes even less) can attain parliamentary representation, resulting in a highly fragmented legislature in which a very small party such as UDEUR - which actually polled only 1.4% of the vote in 2006 - can effectively hold the balance of power; Elections to the Italian Parliament has a comprehensive review of Italy's present and preceding electoral systems.
That said, it remains far from clear if such a government could be formed and who would preside it. Senate Speaker Franco Marini has been frequently mentioned as a possible candidate, and Prodi himself has not been ruled out. Just as important, while there may be a growing consensus that the current electoral system is not working in the country's best interest, so far there has been no agreement on an alternative. As such, it's quite possible that Italy will head to the polls later this year under the existing electoral system - with its well-known shortcomings - and that the government that emerges from that election may eventually find itself in a predicament similar to that of Prodi's outgoing cabinet.