Italy Closer To Early Elections After Constitutional Court Modifies Election Law

As previewed last night, on Wednesday afternoon Italy’s Constitutional Court struck down parts of the electoral law for the lower house, effectively devising a new voting system for the country, and bringing the country one step closer to early elections in a boost to former Premier Matteo Renzi. The court, which had been tasked to rule on Renzi’s 2015 electoral reform, struck down a provision for a run-off vote for the lower house, saying it should be held in just one round. The rest of the law was left largely intact and the court ruled that it can be applied immediately.

In a written ruling, the court rejected a core part of the original law, which had envisaged a run-off ballot in future national elections, saying instead that the vote should be held in just one round. However, it endorsed a clause that would award an automatic parliamentary majority to any party that wins 40 percent of the vote. No opinion polls put any of Italy's plethora of parties anywhere near 40 percent at present.

That means the new system will almost certainly lead to a coalition government, something that may benefit traditional parties and penalize the main opposition 5-Star Movement, which has always refused to form alliances.

The court said the amended law could be used immediately if elections were called. A vote is not scheduled until 2018 but former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who heads the ruling Democratic Party, has said he wants a ballot this year. “We need to vote immediately,” said Ettore Rosato, chief whip for the Democratic Party, or PD, in the lower house, stressing that the new law could be used straight away.

Renzi, who remains leader of the PD, the biggest group in parliament, has been pushing for elections by early June according to Bloomberg. He resigned following his referendum defeat, and backed Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni as his successor.

Quoted by Bloomberg, Giovanni Tarli Barbieri, a professor of constitutional law at Florence University, said that “the ruling is good for Renzi because it makes the electoral system for the lower house more proportional, more similar to the Senate. It’s now up to the mainstream parties to see whether they can or want to make even more changes.”

“The outcome, overall, increases the likelihood of snap polls by June,” according to Teneo Intelligence Co-President Wolfango Piccoli.

While most political parties have called for parliament to approve a new electoral law to take account of the court’s ruling, they remain divided on how to shape a new system and the Italian establishment is concerned that the populist Five Star Movement could win the bonus for topping the election, helping them achieve their goal of a referendum on Italy’s membership of the euro area. Five Star is neck and neck with the Democratic Party in opinion polls. Wednesday’s ruling preserves a majority bonus for the leading party which wins at least 40 percent of the vote in the first round, or which wins the run-off ballot.

Promptly after the Court's decision, lawmakers from Italy's anti-establishment 5-Star Movement on Wednesday called for an immediate election. "The court has told us what we have to do to give the country an electoral law that at least respects the constitution, now we must respect the court and hold elections," prominent 5-Star Senator Nicola Morra wrote on Facebook.

Echoing the sentiment, Alessandro Di Battista, a senior Five Star lawmaker, said after the ruling that “we’ve always said that we want to vote with the law which the ruling produces, and among other things it would appear to be immediately applicable."

As for what the revised law means now, here is an explanation:

“We now basically have two proportional laws for the two houses, the only exception is if someone gets 40 percent and gets the premium in the lower house," Enzo Palumbo, a lawyer for a court in Messina, southern Italy, which appealed the law, told reporters outside the court. “If nobody gets the premium, there won’t be a run-off and seats in the lower house will be assigned on a proportional basis,” he said.


The so-called Italicum law was designed to provide more political stability in Italy by awarding the bonus seats. But with the composition of the Senate determined by a proportional voting system, the law raised the prospect of potential gridlock if different majorities control the two chambers.

As Bloomberg adds, a few hours before the ruling, "Renzi started a new blog, writing that millions of Italians have “a clear and beautiful idea of Italy’s future.” He added: “These millions of Italians don’t give up. I want to walk with them.” Renzi listed priorities as the role of European Union institutions, tax cuts, protecting those who had lost out on globalization, and fighting poverty."

While it is no longer clear precisely on what side of the anti-establishment divide 5-Star leader Beppe Grillo can be found after his recently rebuffed attempt to merge with a pro-Europe federalist in the European Parliament, should the 5-Star movement win in the upcoming elections, Europe will be one stop closer to the populist tipping point, especially since that will likely mean new all time highs in global markets.