Crikey psephologist Charles Richardson writes:
Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi announced last night that his country would go to the polls on 9 April next year for an election that his centre-right government is widely expected to lose.
Once proverbial for its high turnover of governments, Italy has enjoyed unusual stability of late, with Berlusconi serving a full four-year term. But his government has been hurt by allegations of corruption and by the unpopularity of its participation in the Iraq war.
The broad left coalition favoured to unseat Berlusconi is led by Romano Prodi, a former prime minister and former head of the European Commission. He was confirmed as opposition leader last Sunday in a nationwide primary vote, in which he received almost 75% support. Berlusconi quipped: “This is the only way Prodi can win the elections: by letting only left-wingers take part in the vote.”
In a remarkable exercise in grassroots democracy, Italians simply had to show up at a polling booth, “declare they were supporters of the centre-left and make a symbolic contribution of one euro [about $1.60] towards the costs of the poll.” Almost four million of them did so. (What are the odds of an Australian party trying this?)
The election announcement comes the week after Italy’s lower house of parliament approved a government plan to reform the electoral system by returning to proportional representation in place of the current mixed system. The opposition alleged that Berlusconi was changing the rules to suit himself; the government responded, correctly, that the new system is more democratic, but even impeccably democratic change is hardly fair less than six months before an election.
It’s also claimed that the change will produce greater instability. Certainly Italy has been more stable since the move away from proportional representation in 1991, but it is not clear that the two are linked: the party realignment produced by the end of the Cold War was probably much more significant.