By Bruno Marino (Scuola Normale Superiore, Florence)

One of the most common catchphrases that have been used to describe Italian politics is taken from the book ‘The Leopard’ (Il Gattopardo), and – slightly paraphrasing it – it states that if we want everything to stay the same, everything has to change. This has probably been the reaction among many commentators after the formation of the Gentiloni cabinet, whose creation has been triggered by the resignation of Matteo Renzi after the disastrous defeat in the Constitutional Referendum held some weeks ago. Following a series of talks with the representatives of all the parliamentary groups within the Italian Parliament, the President of the Republic, Sergio Mattarella, asked Paolo Gentiloni, the incumbent Minister of Foreign Affairs, to form a new government. Last week, the cabinet quickly received the investiture vote by the Lower and the Upper Houses of the Parliament. Many politicians within the Democratic Party (Partito Democratico, PD), the main centre-left political formation and the largest party in the Italian Parliament, have called for the opening of a ‘new phase’ and for profound changes, in order to address the results of the Constitutional Referendum.
Yet, it has been widely underlined that this new cabinet is nothing more than a sort of almost perfect carbon copy of the Renzi cabinet: apart from some minor changes – e.g. the creation of the Ministry of Territorial Cohesion and South and the replacement of the Minister of Education, University and Research – many people who were ministers in the Renzi cabinet obtained a ministerial appointment in the new cabinet as well; moreover, there has not been a substantial renewal in the top ministerial positions: Angelino Alfano, former Minister of Interior, has obtained the highly prestigious and powerful Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Pier Carlo Padoan has kept his place as Minister of Economy and Finances; finally, Marco Minniti has become the Minister of Interior after a long cursus honorum in the Ministry of Interior itself, in the Ministry of Defence, and in the Prime Minister’s office, specifically in the security services branch.
So, the Renzi cabinet and the Gentiloni one are very similar. Why so? The answer to this question is probably related to several issues. We must start with the Constitutional Referendum: Italy has clearly said ‘no’ to Matteo Renzi’s reform proposal, but the consequences of his defeat have been quite modest, being substantially limited to his resignation as Prime Minister. Moreover, not only was a new government formed after a few days, but Matteo Renzi has also kept his position as leader of the PD. This means that he still retains a relevant amount of power within the party. Furthermore, the PD is still the main force of the governing coalition, and this explains why the party occupies many positions within the cabinet – in most of the cases with the same people. Finally, the parliamentary support of small centre-leaning parties is vital for the Gentiloni cabinet, as it was for the Renzi cabinet, especially in the Senate, where the ‘tripolar’ configuration of the Italian political system after the 2013 general election is clearly visible: this might explain why these small formations with a certain blackmail potential, like the New Centre-Right (Nuovo Centrodestra) led by Angelino Alfano, have obtained or kept some apical positions within the new cabinet.
Finally, what next for the newly-appointed cabinet? To begin with, the EU could ask Italy to modify the recently passed 2017 budget law in order to reduce the budget deficit, and the consequences for the public support towards the PD and the Gentiloni cabinet can be extremely hard to face. Moreover, one of the biggest Italian banks, MPS (Monte dei Paschi di Siena), is in dire straits, and there is the possibility that the Italian government will be forced to rescue it. Last but not least, the Gentiloni cabinet and Matteo Renzi will have to solve a deep and intricate political conundrum: the draft of the new electoral law for the next Italian general election.
An electoral reform is indeed necessary: at the moment, Italian voters would be faced with two different electoral laws in the polling station, one for the Upper House and one for the Lower House. The former one is the so-called Consultellum (a Latinisation of the name of the building where the Italian Supreme Court is located, the Consulta): a quasi-pure PR system, which has been devised by the Italian Supreme Court in 2014, after having declared the then-existing electoral law to be unconstitutional; conversely, the electoral law for the Lower House is the so-called Italicum (on a fun side note, it was Giovanni Sartori who has paved the way for calling the Italian electoral laws with a Latinised name ending in –um), which is a PR system with a majority bonus. Renzi cabinet, when pushing for the approval of the Italicum by the Parliament in 2015, did not do the same for a compatible Senate-related electoral law. Indeed, there was the hope that Matteo Renzi’s Constitutional reform would have been approved by Italian voters in the Referendum. If the Constitutional reform had been approved, among other changes, the Senate would not have been directly elected by Italian voters anymore, and thus a new electoral law for the Upper House would not have been necessary. While many explanations have been proposed to precisely explain why Renzi and his cabinet decided not to promote a ‘safeguarding’ electoral law for the Senate, the result of the Constitutional Referendum has brought about the abovementioned ‘double electoral law’ situation. And this is not the end of the story: the Italian Supreme Court will decide whether the Italicum is constitutional or not at the end of January 2017.
What can the PD – and indirectly the Gentiloni cabinet – do? There are a few possible paths to be taken: passing a new electoral law before the Supreme Court decides on the Italicum, or waiting for such decision and postponing the electoral reform. Both ways are filled with obstacles. In order to immediately pass a new electoral law, the PD needs the support of a certain number of parliamentary groups – especially in the Senate, where it has not a majority of seats by itself – but a majoritarian electoral law cannot be easily passed without alienating the support of the small centre-leaning parties, which are crucial for the survival of the Gentiloni cabinet in the Senate and whose survival would be put at risk by a majoritarian electoral law. On the other hand, passing a PR electoral law (especially a quite proportional version, like the Consultellum one) could condemn Italy to face governments supported by post-electoral heterogeneous, and possibly unstable, coalitions. Conversely, waiting for the decision by the Supreme Court could wear the Gentiloni cabinet out, also given the abovementioned economic- and banking-related issues it has to face.
Matteo Renzi has proposed a middle-of-the-road solution, based on the resurrection of the electoral law used in the 1994, 1996, and 2001 general elections: in those elections, 75% of the seats was allocated through a plurality system and the remaining 25% was allocated with a PR system. The name of the electoral law was Mattarellum, after the name of a then-MP of the Christian Democracy party, Sergio Mattarella, the current President of the Republic. This electoral law could favour the formation of single-party (or single-electoral-cartel) majorities in Parliament, without ruling out the influence and power of small parties. So, the hat-trick to overcome the present political and institutional impasse could be turning back to an electoral law written more than 20 years ago. After all, maybe the catchphrase from ‘The Leopard’ is still of help to understand politics in the Belpaese.

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