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Italy votes Sunday on changing its political system. Here are 3 lessons from Greece.

- November 30, 2016
A couple enjoy Rome’s skyline as they sit on a wall bearing passages from the Italian Constitution on Saturday. (Domenico Stinellis/AP Photo)

The leaders of Greece and Italy both claim to be addressing the eurozone crisis via electoral reforms. But which approach might actually work?

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi last year introduced a majoritarian winner-take-all overhaul — if the winning party has at least 40 percent of the vote, a winner’s bonus would guarantee that it gets 340 seats out of the 630 seats in the Chamber of Deputies. Other changes now proposed include a dilution of the Senate, which would no longer be directly elected and have far less power to veto legislation.

Italy’s referendum takes place Sunday. Renzi argued that Italy needs this change to end the political gridlock that has resulted in 63 governments in 71 years — and help stabilize the economy.

In Greece, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his Syriza party went the other direction, eliminating the 50-seat bonus awarded for decades to the largest party in Greek elections. Because it was approved by a simple majority in Parliament, not a supermajority, the change is not likely to become effective until the 2019 elections.

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Is a majoritarian system a good idea?

In a crisis, political leaders need to pursue rapid reforms to address pressing economic problems. So which electoral system is more conducive to this goal? Some political scientists believe in the “consensual approach” and that a coalition of as many parties as possible should make these decisions. Others argue that in times of crisis a “firm hand” from a simple majority party is needed.

Supporters of the majoritarian approach in Italy and elsewhere maintain that majorities facilitate political stability, streamline decision-making and create accountable governments.

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Our research finds that this appeal rests on popular myths about political stability and effectiveness. In fact, the comparative experience of European countries in the aftermath of the recent economic crisis suggests otherwise. Here’s what we debunked:

1) The myth of political stability — Majoritarian systems can take different forms, but all share a set of constraints against smaller parties or, alternatively, institutional rules allowing the largest party to form a government without having to share power.

Proponents argue that these rules bolster political stability, boosting the effectiveness of reforms and economic recovery measures. But this argument overlooks the effect of individual lawmakers defecting from governing parties, if a financial crisis and difficult decisions arise. Once defections become a possibility, ruling parties either postpone fiscal reforms or engage in new elections.

As our cross-country data from southern Europe demonstrate, Greece’s most majoritarian democracy also has been the most prone to massive defections during critical decision-making moments (see figure).

LOIZIDES, Member of Parliament defections

Lawmaker defection before and after the 2008 euro-zone crisis. T=0 is the first year of the crisis for that country; where T=0 is 2009 for Iceland and T=0 is 2010 for Greece, Portugal and Ireland. Data: Accountability after Economic Crisis project. Figure: Iosif Kovras

There’s a stark lesson for Italy, perhaps. In Greece, the largest parties were over-incentivized to enlist populist figures to maximize their prospects to be the first party and gain the bonus seats. But populist figures are less likely to remain disciplined during crises. Rather than support costly reforms and risk not being reelected, populist lawmakers prefer to cross the floor to either join new parties or side with whoever seems to be in the lead. In Greece, this has led to decision-making paralysis and more frequent elections.

2) The effectiveness of majoritarian rule — Greek opposition leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis, from the center-right New Democracy party, recently argued for a stronger executive. While Mitsotakis may represent Greece’s best hope for economic recovery, his view on the executive does not account for the need to first build a broad political consensus for the much-needed reforms.

Since the beginning of the euro-zone crisis, consecutive Greek governments have announced ambitious reform plans — which went nowhere as parties feared that even small changes in opinion poll readings might slash their parliamentary representation in the next election.

Likewise, it is easier for single-party governments to make countereffective, even catastrophic, decisions based purely on partisan considerations or ideological biases. Greece and the United Kingdom have strong majoritarian systems — and ruling parties in both countries have triggered disastrous referendums in the past 18 months.

3) The belief that majoritarian rule constrains radical parties — In Greece, the rapid rise of Syriza (a party of the populist left) suggests that majoritarian systems enable, rather than deter, radical parties.

[interstitial_link url=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2015/09/02/what-happens-to-the-left-when-it-gains-power-look-at-greeces-syriza-party/?utm_term=.9de991f988bd”]What happens to the left when it gains power? Look at Greece’s Syriza party.[/interstitial_link]

In majoritarian democracies, a party needs a smaller segment of the electorate to come to power (e.g., no U.K. governing party has won more than half the popular vote since 1935). In times of crisis, the same opportunities for office are present for radical parties, if they mobilize their electorate effectively.

In most countries in continental Europe, in contrast, the first party still needs to participate in coalition governments that often reflect broader majorities within the society. They also need to convince a number of partners about the credibility of its program, a very real obstacle for radicals. As we predicted in early 2015, these constraints prevented the Spanish populist Podemos party from election success along the lines of Syriza’s victory.

Even in the best-case scenario, where populists adjust their programs under the threat of financial collapse, they often lack continuity and expertise to govern effectively. Under the Greek majoritarian electoral system, the anti-systemic Syriza won a plurality of votes but had little experience to govern. The result was devastating decisions and repetitive cycles of social and political conflict that nearly led to financial collapse in Greece a few months after Syriza’s rise to power.

There may be unintended consequences

In Greece, the eventual shift toward proportional representation could be an unexpected gift for the liberal opposition, ironically creating an early incentive for moderation and coalition-building.

In Italy’s case, Renzi’s referendum could inadvertently benefit his opponents. If the Italian prime minister loses the referendum and resigns, the populist Five Star Movement may gain seats and power. Much like Syriza’s trajectory to power, Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement recently won local “majoritarian elections” in Rome and Turin.

In what many analysts are calling the year of terrible referendums and elections, ignoring not only Greece’s but also the world’s electoral misfortunes could lead Italy into a similar trap. For majoritarian advocates, referendums such as the Italian one might seem an appropriate alternative to time-consuming consensus politics, yet quick decisions could have devastating consequences.

More troubling, the implications of the Dec. 4 referendum could reach past Italy to touch the future of the European Union. Giving populist parties a quicker path to power could roll resentful majorities against the euro — and threaten the continent’s integration.

Neophytos Loizides is a professor at the University of Kent and author of The Politics of Majority Nationalism (Stanford University Press, 2015).

Iosif Kovras is senior lecturer in comparative politics at City University of London. He is the director of the research project Truth, Accountability or Impunity: Transitional Justice after Economic Crisis, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ES/M011321/1).