A Court Ruling Hands Italy Back to the Electorate

5 MINS READJan 27, 2017 | 00:50 GMT
A Court Ruling Hands Italy Back to the Electorate
In the Italian Parliament, one fewer obstacle stands in the way of an early vote.

Italy's politicians are running out of excuses to avoid early elections. Since former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi tendered his resignation Dec. 7, the country's leaders have been at odds over whether to hold a snap vote. Those opposed to early elections cited concerns over the legality of the country's new and untested electoral law, commonly known as "Italicum," which proposes a two-round voting system. But on Wednesday, the country's Constitutional Court cleared up the matter when it issued its much-anticipated decision on the 2015 law. The court ruled the runoff system unconstitutional and decided to keep a provision of Italicum that awards bonus seats in parliament to political parties that win more than 40 percent of the vote. Now that the question of Italicum's legitimacy has been put to rest, one fewer obstacle stands in the way of an early vote. And if Italy joins Germany, France and the Netherlands in holding general elections this year, it will add to the uncertainty surrounding the eurozone's future.

Because the Constitutional Court's ruling takes effect immediately, Italian Parliament will not have to ratify the changes, and President Sergio Mattarella could call elections at any time. After the court announced its decision, most opposition parties — including the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and the nationalist Northern League — demanded a new vote, though Italy is not scheduled to hold a general election until early 2018. The ruling center-left Democratic Party is divided on the issue: Renzi wants elections as soon as possible, while an opposing faction in the party wants parliament to introduce its own reforms to the electoral law. Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi also wants to delay the vote to give his Forza Italia party a chance to improve their standing in opinion polls. But Mattarella will have the final say in deciding when elections take place since he has the power to dissolve parliament and call a new vote. The Italian president has said that he wants lawmakers to harmonize the distinct electoral laws that govern each of the Italian legislature's two chambers before new elections are held, an undertaking that could take months.

Regardless of when the vote takes place, the Constitutional Court's ruling will have a significant effect on its outcome. Italicum's two-round election was designed to produce strong governments in which a single party controls a majority of seats in parliament. In theory, such a system would ease Italy's perennial struggle with fragile and unstable governments. At the same time, though, it raised concerns in Italy and abroad that the Five Star Movement, which has promised to hold a referendum on Italy's membership in the eurozone, might win in a runoff vote. Since the Constitutional Court scrapped the two-round model, a coalition government appears the most likely result in the next election. Opinion polls show that no party will receive enough of the vote to win extra seats in parliament, meaning that parties will have to form alliances to access power.

This will prove challenging for the Five Star Movement, a party that criticizes Italy's traditional political groups and has refused to make alliances in the past. Should the Five Star Movement decide to try to form a government with another party, the Northern League — which also wants Italy to leave the eurozone — would be its most likely partner. Together, the parties could lead a government that would defy the European Union and put Italy closer to leaving the eurozone — a process that could unravel the entire currency area. The Democratic Party, meanwhile, will probably try to reach a deal with centrist and center-right forces. A minority government is also an option, but it would require winning a vote of confidence in both chambers of parliament.

When Italian voters rejected the constitutional reforms on which Renzi had staked his political future back in December, leaders deferred early elections because of the imminent problems facing the country. Italy's banks were in a tenuous position, and its third-largest lender, Monte dei Paschi, was on the brink of requiring state aid. In lieu of a new vote, lawmakers opted to appoint Paolo Gentiloni — Italy's fourth unelected prime minister since 2011 — using the Constitutional Court's deliberation over Italicum and the trouble in Italy's banking sector to justify the decision. Now that the government has come up with a plan to rescue Monte dei Paschi and the court has ruled on the electoral law, elections will be increasingly difficult to avoid.

Italy's problems today may not seem as urgent as they did in December. But the country still suffers from low economic growth, high unemployment, a fragile banking sector and huge levels of public debt. Furthermore, large segments of its electorate are skeptical of the eurozone and critical of mainstream political parties. These factors will play a decisive role in determining Italy's future when the country holds its next general elections. And so, Italy will probably become yet another source of uncertainty for the eurozone this year as voters in the bloc's economic powerhouses head to the polls.

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