March 14, 2007

"First pasta the post"

Oh dear, that is the heading to a piece on the Open Europe blog.
Once more into the breach... the Italian Government under Prodi are now calling for a return to first-past-the post-elections, introduced after the fall of the so-called first republic in 1992, and abolished by Silvio Berlusconi.

All this raises an interesting question about the connection between institutions and economic reform. Electoral systems are probably the most important institution in determining whether governments can push through painful reforms.

Compare the performance of Italy, with its hundreds of parties, chronically poor government, with that of Spain - with first past the post, and regular stable majority Governments. No surprise that Spain is due to overtake Italy in wealth per head by 2009 according to the Economist.

But, as has been pointed out in the past, as long as the majority for governing is lower than the majority for constitutional reform, Italy is unlikely to see further reform without a crisis. Is FPTP the right idea? FPTP works well in keeping a simple party system stable and avoiding what Sartori called 'centripetal competition'.

But if there is already high fragmentation, particularly along regional lines, FPTP might not reduce the number of parties. Much as FPTP is right for the UK, maybe proportional representation with a high threshold (say 7% to get any seats) would simplify things quicker in Italy...
First of all, Spain's out-performance may have at least as much to do with the huge EU subsidies it's been receiving because it was poorer before. And wage costs there are doubtless lower.

Where there is economic success, there are often economic factors.

Anyway, how democratic is first past the post? It may be agreeable to pronounce favourably on it ex cathedra, but look at the UK. In our last general election, the Tories got more votes in England than Labour, but Labour got over 80 seats more than the Tories.

Most constituencies hardly ever change hands, removing much of the incentive to vote in them. Many voters are effectively disenfranchised, leading to alienation from politics.

The English put up with this and disengage. Somehow I can't see the Italians just shrugging their shoulders.

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