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.
SOME THOUGHTS ON THE ITALIAN ELECTIONS (AND BLIND FAITH ON POLLS).
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 90â€™, 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 didnâ€™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 didnâ€™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. Berlusconiâ€™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. Prodiâ€™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 â€œmajority prizeâ€?); 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 couldnâ€™t have done it, being the relevant authorities under government control. Second, government had the possibilities to cheat. Unless they are ridiculously inept, wouldnâ€™t they have succeeded in playing such a dangerous card? And calling for recounting doesnâ€™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. Berlusconiâ€™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 â€œimageâ€? 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?