Wasted Votes – the Italian Job


Of Wasted and Useless Votes

«Il voto non è mai inutile». Il presidente della Repubblica Giorgio Napolitano sceglie il Cile per lanciare il suo messaggio alla politica italiana: «Ciascuno – aggiunge – dà il voto, secondo la sua valutazione, il suo giudizio, al partito che ritiene più vicino, più affine, o più importante ai fini del rinnovamento politico del Paese» – Il Tempo 21.03.08

The Birth of “Il Voto Utile” (the Useful Vote)

The forthcoming elections in Italy will prove to be another interesting testing ground for the concept of the “Wasted Vote”. The main artificers of this development are Messers Berlusconi and Veltroni, respectively heading the Popolo delle Libertà (PdL) and Partito Democratico (PD). These two men are the “candidati premier” for their respective ‘formations’ – we cannot speak of parties as yet since the PdL and PD are contesting the election as a sort of unified list with one head. The not too hidden agenda of both PdL and PD is to create two huge umbrella parties (yes David, of the PN kind where liberals sit happily with Opus Dei enthusiasts) and thus solve the problems related to multi-party representation and governance. The new electoral laws seem to have been written with this in mind – surprise, surprise once again we find an electoral law that compensates a party that obtains a relative majority of votes by awarding it 55% of the seats in Parliament.

Surprise, surprise, the two “big formations” have been quick to transform this point into an argument that sounds so uncannily similar to the “Wasted Vote” argument that was milked to no end during this month’s General Elections in Malta. Here’s what Veltroni had to say about the vote:

“Tutti i voti sono utili. Però , se con questa legge elettorale vince e prende il 55 per cento dei seggi alla camera chi ha un solo voto in più, allora è una cosa che il suo peso ce l’ha” – Walter Veltroni

All votes are useful but because of the new system, some votes are more useful than others. The argument cannot be more Orwellian than that. Here you have the potential head of the progressive left claiming that – thanks to the new system – some votes are useful and therefore, as a corollary, the other votes are less useful. Or to put it less politely, some votes are useless. Specifically it is the votes to the parties outside the two big formations that are useless. The term “nanetti” (dwarves) has begun to be bandied around in the media. Here’s Chev. Berlusconi on the same issue (of Useful Votes):

” i voti dati ai partiti minori, sono voti sottratti al nostro schieramento, i voti a Udc e La Destra sono voti che aiutano solo il Pd di Prodi e Veltroni” – Silvio Berlusconi

No no, it’s not GonziPN speaking, it’s BerlusconiPdL. Let me translate: “the votes given to minor parties are taken (stolen) from those of our formation, the votes to the UDC and the Right are votes that can only help the PD of Prodi and Veltroni”. It’s the Wasted Vote all over again. The legal mechanism that triggered it this time is slightly different. “Minor parties” in Italy already have to face their own thresholds – they vary between 4% and 8% (depending on whether we are talking about il Senato or la Camera). The vote to the minor parties cannot therefore be described as “Wasted” in terms of representation but it is being described as “Useless” and this mainly in terms of governance. PdL and PD both need to get one more vote than the other, each vote is “useful” in that sense for one of them might need it to be guaranteed the 55% of seats in the Camera (parliament).

It’s not as simple as it may seem. In the Senate, any party obtaining more than 8% of the regional votes will be guaranteed a place in the divvying up of the Senatorial seats from that region (proportionally, but I stand to be corrected). In the Camera dei Deputati, a part must obtain 4% of the national vote in order to be represented.

Hence the birth of the “Useless Vote” (or Voto Inutile) this time round. Speaking on last night’s Porta a Porta, Fausto Bertinotti (Sinistra dell’Arcobaleno) complained that the media are wrongly directing the electorate on this point since the “Useless Vote” issue is being unfairly hammered into people’s minds without the necessary clarifications about its detrimental effect on proper democratic representation.

Disenfranchising the Representative Vote

When votes become useless it is because a system has been chosen that allows governance and governability considerations to trump effective representation. Defenders of the “governability” model rightly point out the stability aspect of having one-party governance. No consideration is made for the detrimental effect that this has on representative politics and on the erosion of the values of representative institutions in modern democracies. As Bertinotti rightly pointed out in the program, electing a “PdL” or “PD” in government might translate to a stable government but it does not also give a valuable return on clear direction and programming once in government.

Large group formations like PdL and PD are the result of compromises between a number of parties. The main effect is dilution of policy and the voter can no longer fully identify with the party. In essence, voting priorities based on issues and programs (nationalisation/denationalisation, education, justice etc) are sacrificed on the altar of governability. The voters’ prerogative of exercising an influence on the direction of the programme of government is neutralised for the sake of “efficiency” in governability. A dangerous spinoff is that the very parties that represented the diversity of programmes and that would have been bound to work together to find a middle-way solution in parliament will suffer the main consequence. Voters who are convinced by the “Useless” vote issue will not vote for the so-called minor parties thus depriving them from a presence in parliament or senate (not having reached the threshhold) and therefore diluting the quality of representation in the very institutions that are supposed to guarantee that very principle.

Are voters convinced? Today’s Corriere mentions a recent poll that says that 60% of the voters are convinced by the “Useless Vote” argument and will vote accordingly. It appears that there are more sceptics among the PD supporters than among Berlusconi’s PdL. What is also interesting is that the outcome of the forthcoming elections seems to depend mainly on the choice of the Italian “ditherers”.

Italy risks ending up with a similar situation as Malta – two large parties representing a wide variety of policies without a basic identifiable set of values, and the demise of small parties (in the case of Malta more than a demise we can speak of a failed rebirth).

The debate on finding the right balance between governance and representation will certainly rage on. What seems to be certain until now is that democratic representation is will turn out to be the loser in the short-term .

Corriere della Sera: “Voto Utile” convinti 6 elettori su 10


7 responses to “Wasted Votes – the Italian Job

  1. David Friggieri

    Caro Jacques – In the PN umbrella formation, ‘liberals’ indeed ‘sit happily’ with Opus Dei enthusiasts. They sit happily like obedient children in class while the headmaster reads out from the prayer book. In Italy liberals who form part of the Veltroni team participate actively and loudly in the running of the school. C’est ca la difference.

  2. Too true David. But are they loud enough to represent their voting base once absorbed in the bigger fold? Bertinotti and Di Pietro both gave examples of programs being hushed/silenced by coalition partners once in government. Do you agree that the main issue here is the balance between governance and representation?

  3. The balance between governance and (parliamentary) representation within the framework of a coalition is determined by many factors, some of which can exist ab ovo, while others crop up at some other time under particular, perhaps also temporary, circumstances.

    If one wishes to consider the Italian patient, one has then to compare and contrast the Maltese patient with his/her Italian counterpart, maybe only to become aware that the hybrid Maltese patient has a more colourful DNA chain with elements of an English patient.

  4. Are we perhaps trying to squeeze out too much fom a vote ? The first litmus test tells us if all basic freedoms are enjoyed by society. In my view Malta still has a way to go in the area of freedom of religion. (eg Divorce – One can be a Greek orthodox in Malta yet the state will not grant him/her a civil decree). My perception is that Italy’s situation is in many respects much more advanced than ours. The second litmus test will tell us the extent to which views beyond basic freedoms are represented in parliament. PDL/PD embrace a wide range of ‘active’ views. Here in malta, these views are bulldozed over by a powerful and LIMITED centre; therefore maltese social democrats have to stomach pjan this and pjan the other while NP liberals live in permanent hibernation under an unyielding ‘old’ DC fist allowed to surface only at election time. They are however appeased by the application of a quasi liberal economic policy even if pre election sounds eg the reform of self employed parameters may unnerve the major players in our economy.

    The Sinistra dell’Arcobaleno’s case is indeed an interesting one – Here we have 1. a party that has a fossilised voting base 2. that has proved to be erratic partners in coalitions. The emerging system seems to militate against such formation as it by-passes its critical voting mass to render such critical mass useless… balance between Governance and representation is indeed a thorny subject

  5. Dear Jacques,

    First of all, as far as I know that the electoral system in Italy is unchanged from the previous election. The difference is that two years ago there were mainly two large ‘poli’ whilst now there is total political anarchy with a myriad of parties and two bigger coalitions.

    Secondly, yes I do see a subtle analogy in priciple with the Maltese scenario with regards to the ‘wasted vote’ dilemma. However, one must keep in mind the particlar scenario in Italy:

    1) The communists (real communists not just watermelons) are strong here. It is important to remember that the President of the Republic is a communist himself.

    2) Italy cannot afford further mistakes (as happened two years when Prodi got elected). It cannot afford another crippled government. It desperately needs a stable government which can last all the legislature.

    3) Italy is lagging behind the other important European countries with a huge public deficit, rampant unemployment and very slow growth.

    4) The Italian ciitizen, therefore, has a huge responsibility. Voting for his ideal party might not necessarily be the best choice for his nation.

    As you well know, I always put the nation’s interest at the very top. And therefore, yes, one should choose between PDL and PD only in order to safeguard national interest, which obviously takes priority over individual interest. Moreover, I strongly believe that everything that is humanly possible should be done to prevent the communists from gaining any form of power.

    Let’s be practical Jacques, it’s not the right moment to dream about the ideal democratic representation in parliament. Facts, facts and good governance MUST take over.

  6. A similarity between the Italian and Maltese experience is possibly that of the fear factor. Communism (there was indeed some basis to justify concerns) used to be the reason why anti-democratic initiatives such as gladio (its broad significance) were ‘tolerated’. Yet this attitude – need to keep out the perikuluzi/ifissru inkwiet ‘reds’ by all means fair and foul extended well beyond a ‘justifiable’ point. The result? Institutionalised corruption that included the part-psedo socialist party that clipped the left vote to ensure uninterrupted governors and subsequent stagnation. The result – anni di piombo/compromesso storico/the Aldo Moro debacle. And who were the ultimate beneficiaries in all this? With Craxi’s downfall one may have had no option but to emerge from the group to hold the beneficiaries’ fort.

    The Italian Communists today represent a voice that challenges the basic tenets of Capitalism; I personally see this as an important issue that may hopefully render capitalism a better option, but then not important enough to allocate my vote to it (one can only squeeze so much from a vote). Still I feel that it is an important voice in a richly diversified parliament. But, when it then comes to the governance issue, i must admit at feeling lost. Given that the communists try to negotiate a much larger slice of influence than their grass-root support seems to ‘merit’ (a subjective opinion I hate making but there are times when subjective opinions become necessary – a reason perhaps why we should not abuse of subjective opinions), than such lobby group should not, for a time being, have the power to decide if a government stands or falls.

  7. Anton Says:
    March 27, 2008 at 12:35 am

    “Let’s be practical Jacques, it’s not the right moment to dream about the ideal democratic representation in parliament. Facts, facts and good governance MUST take over.”

    Yes, facts, facts and good governance MUST take over:


    Thursday, 27th March 2008
    Partnership for peace: A bolt from the blue

    “What is striking here, however, is how the Prime Minister, who made it the central tenet of his electoral campaign that his would be “a government of all the people”, transparent and accountable for all its actions, can, within a few days of being returned to office, make a unilateral decision without in any way consulting the opposition on a subject that divides large sections of our population, irrespective of whether that is justifiable or not.

    This is worrying to say the least as it lays the Prime Minister open to the accusations of arrogance to which his first Administration was so prone. While it might be argued that the opposition is in disarray and the need to deal with the issue was timely, it still remains a strategic decision taken opportunistically without broad consultation in an area of politics – foreign affairs – where there has recently been remarkable consensus between the government and the opposition.”

    “The initiative to reactivate PfP is commendable but the cack-handed manner of its presentation is disappointing.”

    Once again, what did Anton say?

    Oh yes: “Facts, facts and good governance MUST take over.”

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