After prime minister Matteo Renzi’s crushing defeat in last weekend’s constitutional referendum, Italy has been thrown into political crisis. President Sergio Mattarella may appoint a caretaker government in the next few days. But a general election seems inevitable, as the only way to resolve the impasse in the longer term. The populist, anti-euro Five Star Movement led by the comedian Beppe Grillo is running neck and neck in the opinion polls with Mr Renzi’s Democratic party. Under an electoral law known as Italicum that came into force in July and under which the next general election is set to be held, Five Star could form a majority single-party government if it wins a certain share of votes. That prospect frightens Italy’s political establishment. Five Star aims to bring Italy out of the euro. Whatever one’s views on the single currency, such a development would be destabilising for Italy and the eurozone. Italy has chronically weak banks and an underperforming economy and a period of upheaval as it changed currency would make matters worse.
Under the electoral law, if one political party wins at least 40 per cent of the popular vote, it will automatically be allocated 54 per cent of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of parliament. If no party reaches that level, a second round is held in which the two biggest parties participate. The winner of that second round would still get 54 per cent of deputies’ seats. By contrast, members of the senate, the upper house of parliament, are elected on a proportional voting system.
Italicum was championed by Mr Renzi, who said the electoral law would end Italy’s long experience with fragmented coalitions and revolving-door governments. His constitutional reforms, which were rejected by voters last Sunday by a thumping majority of 59 per cent to 41 per cent, also included a measure that would have drastically reduced the size and role of the Senate. By concentrating power in the Chamber of Deputies, it would have made the sitting prime minister very powerful.
The obvious beneficiaries of Italicum were Mr Renzi’s centre-left Democratic party and Five Star, now the two biggest factions in Italian politics. Italicum also would neuter the other parties, perhaps keeping them out of power for years to come.