Monday, December 31, 2012

Electionwatch 8 – two cheers for the centre-left primaries

The Italian electoral law, the Porcellum or pig’s dinner, has fixed party lists. The party or the party leader decides on the order. If you win 25% of the vote, then the top quarter of the list are elected; the voter can only choose a party and can do nothing to influence which of the party’s candidates should be elected. The Israelis have a similar system and will be using it next month.

After a very successful primary campaign for the leadership, the Democratic Party (PD) decided to repeat the scheme for their parliamentary candidates. They worked very quickly and effectively to draw up rules and organise elections across the country. The aim was to give voters the choice that the electoral system denies them as well as guaranteeing some gender balance (voters in the primaries can vote for two candidates; one male, one female).

On Saturday and yesterday, party members and sympathisers voted for the candidates that they would like to see fight the elections in February. My immediate presumption was that the primaries would establish the order of the fixed party list and therefore the likelihood of a candidate actually being elected.

I was wrong.

First of all, Party Secretary, Pierluigi Bersani, chooses the people for the top of the lists. There are 26 constituencies for the Chamber and 20 regional constituencies for the Senate. Then the national executive chooses up to 10% of the candidates (about a 100) on the basis of “competence and openness towards society”. That counts for almost a third of likely parliamentarians.

The rest are not ranked directly by party activists though; today’s primaries are organised on a province basis while the constituencies are much bigger, usually regionally. So, as Chiara Geloni, chief editor of the PD’s television station, YouDem, told me, “in my province of Massa Carrara, the party decided that we should have two candidates at the elections so we chose two from the four in the primaries.”

The Tuscan constituency has 38 deputies and if the PD does very well, they might win 20 seats (in 2008, they had 19) so candidates 1-15 are sure of election, 16-22 are possibles and 23-38 are no-hopers. Geloni was not able to tell me where the two winners from Massa would be placed on the list or whether the man or the woman would be first “that will be decided by the Regional and National executives”. They will also decide on the order for the Senate candidates. The final results are expected on Wednesday.

So at the end of the day, the exercise was rather less than a triumph of transparency and democracy. The leader and the secretariat did not let the activists decide who would stand the best chance of being elected as the Americans do in their primaries and, indeed as the PD did in its own leadership primaries last month.

But it would be ungenerous to carp too much and accuse the PD of residual communist control. No party anywhere in the world allows militants to decide all the posts. In Italy, only the PD and its allies even staged primaries. At a local level, the “wrong” ie non-party-sponsored candidate has won on more than one occasion. And then gone on to win the mayoral election like Giulio Pisapia in Milan and Luigi De Magistris in Naples.

Angelino Alfano proposed primaries for the centre-right in order to give himself some legitimacy beyond Berlusconi’s investiture. But then Berlusconi couldn’t resist coming back into play and the PdL was worried that they could not manage the PD’s 3 million turnout and so would be perceived as losers. Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement (M5S) held their primaries on line with some doubts as to the reliability and transparency of the process. In any case only 95,000 people voted.

Mario Monti and the centre haven’t given themselves enough time even to think about primaries.

So all in all, the PD primaries have been a success. The leadership process gave the party huge coverage and a big boost in the opinion polls hitting 38% briefly. They are now down to 33-35% but still doing well. Pierluigi Bersani has established himself as the clear and undisputed leader not only of the PD but of a centre-left coalition that goes from Bruno Tabacci in the centre to Nichi Vendola on the left. And finally, 3 million people turned out to vote in November and a million this weekend; they paid €2 each; €8 million is a useful start to an election campaign. Many of them left phone numbers or emails so will be contacted during the campaign and some will campaign themselves. So even if the people in my local PD office did not know exactly what everyone was voting for, the overall effect was certainly positive not just for the PD but for Italian democracy in general.

As in previous election years, the American University of Rome will be hosting a two day conference covering election issues, parties, policies and personalities, with analyses from scholars, journalists and politicians. This year it will be on 8-9 March 2013 originally a month before the likely date of the elections, now two weeks after the 24-25 Feb elections. The keynote speeches will be given by Paul Ginsborg and Gianfranco Pasquino.

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