Italy Did Not Just Send in The Clowns

Why The Political Stalemate Is a Warning to Democracies Everywhere

Silvio Berlusconi in 2011. (Tony Gentile / Courtesy Reuters)

Italy's inconclusive election on February 25 did nothing to help the country's image abroad. In noting that more than half of Italians cast their vote for either Silvio Berlusconi, the former prime minister, or Beppe Grillo, leader of the Five Stars Movement, international observers resorted to familiar tropes. Painting Italy's political system as farcical and chaotic, the German Social Democratic leader Peer Steinbrück commented that Italy had elected two clowns.  Of course one of them, Grillo, is an actual comedian, whose party polled an extraordinary 25 percent of the vote in its first national election. But Steinbrück should not have been so quick to condemn: the results of the Italian election are a reflection -- albeit an exaggerated one -- of trends that all European democracies are facing.

Italy's political impasse is the direct result of declining popular support for the two broad political coalitions that have shaped its politics for the last two decades: the center-left, currently organized around the Democratic Party (PD), and the conservatives, dominated by the People of Freedom (PDL), led by Berlusconi. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, one of these coalitions generally won enough parliamentary seats to form a government, albeit often by including unpredictable minor parties in their governing majority.

This time, though, neither has garnered anywhere near enough support to form a government. The Italian constitution requires a government to win a majority in both houses of parliament before it can take the reins. The PD has a comfortable majority in the lower house, thanks mostly to electoral laws that grant a generous number of bonus house seats to the winning coalition. The party is far short of majority in the Senate, though, since the law allocates Senate bonus seats at the regional level, which benefited the PD and PDL more or less equally.

The current Italian electoral law was passed in 2005 by Berlusconi's government in an attempt to cement his grip on power. By allocating seat

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