Italy Electoral Law Ruled Unconstitutional in Parts

The Italian Constitutional Court declared parts of the country’s election law inapplicable, increasing pressure on Prime Minister Enrico Letta to push new rules through parliament.

The Rome-based court overturned a measure in the law that prevents voters from directly choosing representatives in parliament and one that awards extra seats to the party or coalition that gets the most votes, the court said today in an e-mailed statement. The ruling will take effect when the decision is published in coming weeks.

The decision will push Letta, 47, to accelerate his plans to rewrite the law, which the government had planned to change by the end of next year. The law, known in Italy as “the pigsty,” was introduced in 2005 by then-Premier Silvio Berlusconi and has set the rules for three general elections. The most recent vote, in February, installed 945 lawmakers whose terms expire in four and a half years.

“In theory, the parliament can remain until 2018, even if it seems very unlikely, especially in light of this ruling,” Cesare Mirabelli, a former president of the Constitutional Court, said in a phone interview. Electoral reform “was one of the most urgent things to do, and now it becomes so in an absolute way.”

The two measures struck down by the court were originally included in the 2005 law to help bring stability to a parliament often beset by fragmentation and shifting alliances. The bonus seats guarantee a majority in the lower house of parliament for the winning coalition, while party discipline is enhanced by the closed lists, which require voters to pick a party and deny them a choice on their representative.

Proportional Representation

In the absence of a new legislation by parliament, Italy will be left with a system of proportional representation that allows voters to express a preference for individual candidates.

Party leaders said they are ready to push forward with a new law. Guglielmo Epifani of Letta’s Democratic Party, the biggest group in parliament, said new rules must be approved right away, Ansa reported. Beppe Grillo of the Five Star Movement, the largest opposition party, said parliament should reinstate the law that was in vigor from 1994-2005 and then go to snap elections.

The court ruling “could play into the hands of those who do want early elections,” Federico Santi, a London-based analyst with Eurasia Group, said in a telephone interview. “The current parliament is essentially illegitimate at this point as it was elected with a law that has been deemed unconstitutional in its main components.”

Reform Stalled

Electoral reform stalled under Letta and before him, under former Prime Minister Mario Monti, even as all four of the biggest political parties have criticized the rules. The instability that has plagued Italy since World War II hasn’t abated since the 2005 law was implemented.

The last four Italian prime ministers, Romano Prodi, Berlusconi, Monti and Letta, have struggled to maintain the necessary majorities in both houses of parliament. Instability is especially prevalent in the Senate, where bonus seats are handed out on a regional, rather than a national, basis, which tends to fragment representation.

(Corrects last paragraph to show bonus seats are given in the Senate.)
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