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Europe

Dec 30, 2012

Well, isn’t that interesting?

A few days ago I said that Mario Monti, Italy's caretaker prime minister, had "l

Charles Richardson — Editor of The World is not Enough

Charles Richardson

Editor of The World is not Enough

A few days ago I said that Mario Monti, Italy’s caretaker prime minister, had “left open the possibility of returning to government in some capacity.” Now he’s gone a step further, announcing that he will put himself at the head of a “centrist” ticket for February’s election.

The BBC reports as follows:

The BBC’s David Willey, in Rome, says that Mr Monti clearly threw his hat into the political ring at a news conference on Friday evening.

“A new political formation has been born,” Mr Monti said.

A single reform list, grouping together centrist parties, would stand for election to the Senate under the provisional title “Monti’s agenda for Italy”, he said.

But in the lower house, the chamber of deputies, there would be a coalition of centrist parties, including the Christian Democrat UDC.

As senator for life, Mr Monti cannot stand for election, but he is able to take part in the campaign and could return to the post of prime minister if a centrist coalition were successful.

Centrist parties have had a poor run in Italy in recent times. That’s partly because the major parties have typically been so close together in policy terms that there’s been very little room to stake out a distinctive position between them – the same problem that used to plague the Australian Democrats.

But in the last couple of elections there’s been a more specific reason. Since the return to proportional representation in 2006, Italy’s electoral system has guaranteed an absolute majority of seats to the party or coalition that wins a plurality of votes in the lower house. That means that coalitions need to be as broad as possible, and sympathetic minor parties have an incentive to join a coalition rather than standing apart from it, since that might cost it victory.

In 2008, when Silvio Berlusconi won easily, one centrist grouping (based on the Christian Democrats) ran separately, but managed only 5.6% of the vote. The two major coalitions of centre-left and centre-right had 84.2% between them. In the previous election, the 2006 cliffhanger, that was even more pronounced: the two big coalitions vacuumed up almost all the smaller parties, together winning an extraordinary 99.2%.* (Figures here.)

That’s not to say there haven’t been centrist parties, but they’ve mostly had to work in alliance with either left or right. My sense is that the same dynamic will prevent Monti’s coalition from drawing much support away from the left. If he has an impact at all, it will be to further fracture the centre-right vote, thus diminishing Berlusconi’s influence. Which, I suspect, is a result Monti would be quite happy with.

* These figures are all for the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies. The Senate, which is independently powerful, doesn’t have the overall winner’s bonus, so its voting is even more interesting – I’ll write about it another time.

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