Throughout the post-war first republic, which grew out of the ashes of Italy's defeat, Italian politicians were elected according to a form of proportional representation (PR) that was the purest in the world in terms of electoral theory but among the most corrupt in practice. In the immediate aftermath of the disaster to which more than 20 years of dictatorial rule under Benito Mussolini had brought them, Italians desired a system that would diffuse power. The one they came up with ensured that everyone - bar the Communists and neo-fascists - would have a slice of the cake. It was the most representative system in the world, and one of the least effective.
Governments were formed through compromise. Decisions were taken by consensus. If this produced weak governments, so be it. That was preferable to a new Mussolini. The Italians needed protection from themselves; the system was the right one at the time. But changing circumstances, above all the fall of the Berlin Wall and death of Communism, meant that no longer did the mainstream parties need to form a national alliance to keep the Communists from power.
One big drawback of the old system was that the same grey faces reappeared year after year in parliament. Another was that the system put the greatest power and patronage in the hands of the party bosses: they not only drew up the lists of candidates, but also decided which should get the seats. A third - though it added greatly to the spice of political life - was the opportunity it gave to new parties, fringe groups and even individuals: with no West German-style minimum percentage of votes required, tiny parties such as the Greens, the Radicals and the Republics achieved representation. So, notoriously, did the Hungarian-born porn star known as La Cicciolina, who campaigned on a platform of free love.
The change in voting system was set in train by a referendum earlier this year. Most Italians showed that they wanted their elected representatives to be more accountable, under a new system for a new era. What has emerged is a hybrid, combining elements of the old and the new: 75 per cent will be elected under the British first-past-the-post system and 25 per cent under proportional representation.
It is not necessary to dissect all the ingredients to discern the change in the dish. The new electoral recipe requires less oil to lubricate it and provides a meatier form of government. While Italy's extreme form of PR was not the sole cause of the rampant corruption in political life, it was a contributory factor. The electoral changes are just one mechanism to transform the political culture that has spawned the current corruption scandals. Voters will themselves choose three-quarters of both deputies and senators: only the remaining quarter will come off party lists to ensure proportionality. As a compromise between the excesses of pure PR and the unfairness of Britain's undiluted first- past-the-post system, it looks well-judged to play its part in restoring the credibility of Italy's political system.Reuse content