Guest post on the Italian elections

Nanni Concu, one of my colleagues in the Risk and Sustainable Management Group is currently teaching in his native Italy, and sent me some observations on the elections there.


The irony in the past Italian general election is terrific. Here is the case of a government that changes the electoral laws fearing to lose the elections. The opposition then wins. With the old electoral system the governing party would have stayed in power with a clear majority .

But forget the amusing part of the story. What happened in Italy has a simple explanation. Since the reshuffle of Italian politics in the late early 90’, the talented conservatives have modernized the approach to governing with the widespread use of opinion polls (and almost absolute media control). As some commentators put it, Italian politics became a marketing strategy.

Mr. Berlusconi, the leader of the conservative party, was (and still is) the master of quoting statistics selectively. It worked very well in 2001, when conservatives won a large majority in both houses of parliament. It didn’t work for the European and local elections in 2004 and 2005, when voters switched en masse for the center-left coalitions (but Mr. Berlusconi didn’t campaign too hard). Since then, regular opinion polls investigated the mood of the Italian public, showing almost invariably the clear lead of the center-left coalition and the decline of a Mr. Berlusconi’s own party Go Italy! (sic).

The conservatives reacted in two ways to these dire predictions. First, they delayed elections as long as possible so as to reverse the trends with a long, radical and disruptive electoral campaign. Second, designing a new electoral system with three goals: decreasing the chances of a loss (e.g., redrawing of the electoral districts, allowing Italians residing abroad to vote); creating the conditions for the two Houses to have different majorities so as to make governing almost impossible; and allow for the re-distribution of power within the conservative side (e.g. switching from a majority to a proportional system).

The electoral campaign was indeed a shameful exercise in political subversion, with Mr. Berlusconi unwilling to play by the rules, resorting to insulting friends and foes and, honestly, making a fool of himself more than once. Two months before the elections, the country was left uninformed of the voting trends thanks to the electoral law that bans publishing of polls results (according to some, a sign that Mr. Berlusconi had something to fear). Electoral campaign gained momentum. The center-left coalition and its leader Mr. Prodi seemed to gain confidence as Mr. Berlusconi became more and more aggressive.

Then it came Election Day: two quiet days of voting and waiting for the first exit polls; excellent turn out of voters; exit polls finally out and showing a 4 to 6% lead of Mr. Prodi and its coalition. But vote counting was a wild ride. Mr. Prodi’s clear lead narrowed rapidly; electoral districts considered safe switched side; Mr. Berlusconi climbed back and conservatives announced his victory in the Senate and the possible victory in the other House as well; and the final twist: in the House of Deputies the center-left gained 25.000 more votes (just the 0.066% of voters) but obtained a clear majority of 63 seats thanks to the electoral law (so called “majority prize�); in the Senate, the conservatives obtained 50,2% of votes, the centre-left 48,9%, but Mr. Prodi still gained a majority of 2 seats thanks to the votes of the Italians residing abroad.

Mr. Berlusconi and his allies are still calling for recounting, clearly upset by the narrow loss that is their own making. But why did they change the electoral law? Evidently they heavily relied on the results of the 2004/2005 elections and the opinion polls, confirmed by exit polls, showing the clear lead of the centre-left coalition. But why then both opinion polls and exit polls got it so wrong?

I would disregard the idea that one of the party cheated. First, the centre-left coalition couldn’t have done it, being the relevant authorities under government control. Second, government had the possibilities to cheat. Unless they are ridiculously inept, wouldn’t they have succeeded in playing such a dangerous card? And calling for recounting doesn’t run the risk to expose their eventual fraud?

It could be that opinion polls have methodological problems or use biased samples. However, that almost the totality of polls commissioned by both parties, using different methodologies to survey and sample, and over a period of several months, gave very similar results: a clear majority of the centre-left coalition. It could also have happened that undecided voters explain the difference between election and poll results. Indeed, some survey showed that at least 6% of voters decided what to vote in the ballot box . But then why did exit polls still indicate a clear lead of Mr. Prodi and his coalition?

My view is that this is a case of strong sample self-selection in the case of opinion polls and untruthful answers in the case of exit polls. Mr. Berlusconi’s voters refused either to take part into the survey or tell the truth. Why? The reason could be that Mr. Berlusconi has radicalized Italian politics in a way that some voters, while not trusting the centre-left coalition, do not endorse the “image� of their leader. Not everybody in the conservative side really thinks that tax fraud is morally right, that forging book is not a crime, that parochial interests come before collective interests and so on. Free riding could be the rule in Italian society. Still, it is bad to be caught and exposed, both for the moral and social sanctions and the legal consequences. Still, it is bad to declare to be a free rider. Mr. Berlusconi has tried hard to morally justify and endorse anti-social behaviours. It has partially worked given the number of people that now publicly declare to be fascists. Moderates, however, seems to be more sceptical and ashamed to be fully associated with these type of political allies. Somehow they backstabbed Mr. Berlusconi giving him their votes, but victory to Mr. Prodi.

Mr. Berlusconi has clearly lost the elections. He lost because his blind faith in polls and ignorance of his own electorate. But would you expect better from an arrogant megalomaniac?

8 thoughts on “Guest post on the Italian elections

  1. There was an interesting story on the Beeb describing how Berlusconi miscalculated the overseas vote because he failed to take in to account the embarassment factor. That is, the overseas voters actually are conservative-leaning and likely would have voted in larger numbers for Berlusconi (enough to change the result) were it not for the social pressure from their non-Italian friends and colleagues constantly ribbing them about the wacky behavior of their Prime Minister.

    My strong suspicion that many center-left coalition voters fully expect the Prodi government to screw things up reminds me of the Lousiana governor election of some years back that featured a brazenly corrupt former governor vs. a former high official of the Ku Klux Klan. This led to the all-time champion campaign slogan “Vote for the lizard, not the wizard!” (referring to the Klan title of “Grand Wizard”). To the relief of most the lizard won, then promptly fulfilled everyone’s expectations by being convicted for corruption during his new term. Ain’t democracy grand.

  2. …”the embarassment factor”

    Astute point, Steve.

    Policies aside, it must be acutely disconcerting to have one’s country led by a caricature figure like Berlusconi, if one is an ex-pat Italian.

    (Yes, I know they act as if they don’t care, but actually they do)

  3. “Embarrassment” at being ribbed about the leader of one’s home country? A quick straw poll of Australian people would reveal that very few could name the leader of Italy, never mind know the first thing about him.

    Quickly; How many Greek Australians have friends who can name (or care about) the leader of Greece?
    The same for Croatian, Portugese, Danish, Romanian, Lithuanian etc Australians.

    Thought so….

    Likewise for various hyphenated-americans, canadians, british, Argentines, south africans & so on.

    The “Beeb” is Wayne King once again.

  4. Steve at the Pub – Maybe Italians in Oz wouldn’t experience the embarrassment factor, but Italians in Europe would have had a lot of exposure to the elections (which got quite a bit of coverage outside Italy) and to the view that Berlusconi was a crook unfit to run anything.

  5. And let’s hope that Berlusconi’s “Milan” get knocked out of the Champions League tonight so that we can all enjoy a “beautiful” final between Arsenal and Barca.

    Btw, Paul Ginsborg’s short book on Berlusconi is excellent. At about 160 pages short enough on the bio of the man but very interesting on the risks and ramifications for democracy of Silvio, his style of politics and the role and control of the media. As are Ginsborg’s two volumes of Italian history since 1944.

  6. Of course we should keep an eye on the Italians. But I feel confident in guessing that it’s the other European election that people really want to know about. So here are some observations on the Hungarian elections, also starting on 9 April. The election was for the National Assembly, which has 386 seats, and fixed four-year terms.

    Hungary uses the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) voting, along with New Zealand, Italy, Albania, Venezuela, Mexico, Bolivia, Lesotho and Germany (where it originated). Without understanding the Italian system, I’m confident that the Hungarian is at least as complicated.

    In the first round, you cast two votes: one for your single-representative district, and a second one for a party. The party votes elect members to each of 20 multi-member districts. If your favoured candidate in the single-member district isn’t in the top three, or your party doesn’t reach the threshold in the multi-member district, these votes are ‘wasted’. The wasted votes are pooled and used to fill national seats reserved for this purpose from lists of candidates supplied by the parties. In the second round, two weeks later, the single-member seats are contested again if no one got a majority the first time, and only the top three can run. Also, allied parties do deals withdrawing candidates to maximise their votes in these districts.

    The mixed system seems a good one, except that only about one in twenty people seems to understand it. Maybe that doesn’t matter. Having two rounds is strange, though. The first round grips the nation’s attention. But if the result is close, no one concedes defeat, and the campaign resumes again. By the time the second vote comes, people have largely lost interest, and voter turnout is much lower. At least the drawn–out process eases the pain of disappointment for the losers. If your loved one languishes in a coma for two weeks before dying, you have time to adjust. But compared to our sudden death elections, the Hungarian ones create a sense of anti-climax.

    The result was that the Hungarian Socialist Party was returned to office, along with its small coalition partner, the Alliance of Free Democrats (liberal party). This is the first time a government has been returned in Hungary since elections started in 1989. It’s easy to produce a trite explanation for the pattern up to now: oppositions have succeeded in portraying themselves as less corrupt and nepotistic than incumbent governments in a period of scary social and economic transformation. Until a year ago the opinion polls, along with the European Parliamentary Elections, predicted another change of government. But the socialists managed to turn it around by replacing their uncharismatic leader with a groovy new, 44-year-old, 190cm tall millionaire, who even has his own blog.

    Apart from that, actually, I have no idea why Hungarians vote as they do. The local BBC correspondence interpreted this, in very knowing tones, as a ‘vote for continuity and stability’. If you ask ‘ordinary’ people why they vote for Party X, they’ll usually mention something that Party X has promised to spend money on. In fact both sides promised the earth despite the fact that the budget deficit is around 7 percent of GDP. The government boasted that it wouldn’t be pushed around by the IMF; the opposition offered tax cuts with shameless Laffer-curve arguments.

    In most countries, at least Anglo-Saxon ones, your average person in the street is averse to characterising his politics as left or right. Hungarians, however, if they divulge their views at all, will tell you they vote for ‘The Left’ or ‘The Right’. The left means the Socialists, who are essentially the party of European integration, trans-national capital and tax churning. The right means FIDESZ, which, depending on whom you talk to, is either a conservative party, a radical right party, or the only real left-wing party. The last characterisation seems mainly due to the party’s opposition to privatization, especially recent government proposals for hospitals. But as far as I can gather, this was pure opportunism, in line with most of their policies. The one element of their platform that is consistent is nationalism, reflected in their plans to give passports to ethnic Magyars in bordering countries, in definite protectionist tendencies, and in their general rhetoric and symbolism.

    Hungarians tend to define themselves by, and are indeed polarised according to, how they respond to this approach, and to FIDESZ’s leader Viktor Orbán. He is pretty much a one-man show, and people who don’t see him as a messiah, tend to regard him as a dangerous demagogue. Campaigns are nasty and personal. Families and friendships are split by political allegiances in a way I’ve never seen elsewhere, and people are cagey about their politics for this reason. It’s all very paradoxical to an outsider. If the differences between the parties’ policies were substantial, families would tend to be affected in the same way, and vote the same way; the same applies, to some extent, to work colleagues. On the other hand, if the differences are so insubstantial, why do they elicit such strong emotion?

    Anyway, FIDESZ now face a dilemma. Orbán has lost two elections, and, like a certain Australian opposition leader, will carry that baggage with him if he contests the next one. On the other hand, he is the only real face the party has. His departure might cause a fragmentation and realignment of ‘conservative’ forces. But this might not stop the ‘right’ winning the next election. Loyalties are fickle in a new democracy and small parties can make a run from nowhere and win government, as FIDESZ itself did in 1998. In the meantime, the Socialists will have to break half of their promises if they serious about adopting the Euro by 2010.

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