In Memoriam of Aldo Di Virgilio

Aldo Di Virgilio has left us almost on tiptoe. It is not far-fetched to consider that it all occurred precisely in the style he had made his own: with discretion and a sense of measure. Hence, the surprise and dismay that struck his many friends and colleagues who had not yet learned the news of his illness. But even those who were closest to him, as I was, and knew of the uphill battle he was fighting could not imagine such a swift epilog. With these pages, his friends and colleagues, not only Italian, wish to recall his contribution to political science research and honor his memory as a scholar with a work that has the merit of looking beyond the sad occasion that inspired it. In fact, this issue of IPS, journal of the “Società Italiana di Scienza Politica,” is meant to be a useful reference tool for scholars and their students.

In the following pages, Italian political science takes stock of the current state of its many thematic branches, several of which have been enriched by Aldo Di Virgilio’s contributions, ranging from electoral studies and considerations on the transformations of political parties, to comparative politics. As for me, my colleagues have allowed me the honor of briefly introducing this collective undertaking. I believe that the most appropriate manner to do so is to offer a few thoughts on how Aldo considered his work; these are filtered, of course, by the long friendship that had bound us since the early 1990s, when we were both board members of the “Rivista Italiana di Scienza Politica,” a friendship which became even closer in 1999, when Aldo came to the Political Science Department of Bologna from the University of Calabria.

He was a rigorous scholar and an effective teacher, loved by the students of his courses and the many undergraduates whom he guided through their first research attempts, offering a degree of enthusiasm, energy, and time not usually found in academia.

He was a dedicated and skilled craftsman, with a keen eye for detail and for the links that bind the formal rules to the choices of political actors; he was a sensitive interpreter of those institutional and cultural inertiae that inevitably cause political decisions to remain conditioned, at least in part, by the previous power structures. So, frequently, in fact, are outcomes as predictable for analysts as they are underestimated by decision-makers. Here in passing, I would like to recall his incredulity—he was exasperated far beyond his customary reserve—when we learned that the Calderoli Law, hastily introduced in December 2005, had established a majority premium in the Senate for each of the 17 regions. In a country characterized by a particularly irregular electoral geography and by regions of very different sizes, this detail was a sure guarantee for ungovernability. In fact, in the following years, political events provided me with numerous opportunities to again discuss this issue with Aldo during our daily commute between Florence and Bologna.

However, there is no need to indulge in personal memories. There is ample evidence of how Aldo’s work left no room for interpretation shortcuts, for preconceived schematizations, or for easy simplifications. We find the first examples of this in his essays on the 1994 and 1996 elections, in which he analyzed the transformations of the electoral supply in the transition between the “First” and “Second” Republic. In the 55 pages of his dense essay in Maggioritario ma non troppo (Di Virgilio 1995), Aldo reconstructed the genealogical ties linking the old and the new actors, building a transition matrix between the 12 parties existing in the late 1980s and the 25 parties or movements founded between 1991 and 1994, in addition to the absolute novelty of Forza Italia (p. 187). He then paid the same rigorous attention to the composition of the coalitions in competition for the single-member constituencies, in particular, by setting up a table made up of as many as 26 lines (the constituencies of the Chamber) by 10 columns (the number of political forces that made up the coalition of the Progressisti!), purely to reconstruct the party affiliation of the candidates for the Chamber of Deputies in the various areas of the country (pp. 199–200).

We find even greater breadth in the essay included in Maggioritario per caso, which focused on the composition of the supply in the 1996 elections (Di Virgilio 1997). The alliance that Prodi led to victory over a divided center-right was even more diversified than two years before. Aldo reconstructed the 19 components to which the 471 Ulivo candidates in the 26 constituencies belonged—a footnote signals no Olive-tree candidate in the constituency of Nusco-Mirabello Eclano, where the former secretary of the Christian Democrats, Ciriaco De Mita, was the candidate. He was not part of Prodi’s coalition; nevertheless, the Ulivo did not intend to oppose him in “his” constituency (pp. 100–101).

As can be seen from these examples, the complexity of the supply in the first two elections with the majoritarian system was incomparably greater than the reader—even the most informed—could have inferred from the media or which ultimately reached the Ministry of the Interior’s Election Office as the list of candidates of each party in each constituency. Aldo’s is a kind of ethnography of the backstage political decisions, conducted by interviewing individuals with privileged information—and in fact, in his works, Aldo systematically thanked the election managers of the various political parties and movements, the only persons who had the kind of information he needed to reconstruct the details of the bargaining between allied parties and movements.
In this sense, Aldo also worked for tomorrow’s historians. In fact, the definition of the electoral supply generally loses its relevance for politics and media rather quickly. The day after the election—indeed, sometimes, just minutes after the polls close—the focus is only on the results of the vote to see who won and who lost, who would enter parliament, and who had been excluded.
Aldo’s contribution was systematic in the context of the analysis of election results, as evidenced by the column he wrote for decades in the “Quaderni dell’Osservatorio Elettorale”: a well-known reference point for specialists, who are sure of finding reliable data, in-depth analyses, and thoughtful comments.

Returning to the analysis of the moves of parties and leaders before elections, one must emphasize Aldo’s acumen in pointing out that an election victory is almost always the offspring of a better supply; in other words, one that is more in line with the constraints and opportunities of a specific electoral system, and, of course, with the expectations of voters.

With the mainly majoritarian 1993 electoral system, the Mattarella Law, the center-right coalitions suffered systematic competition at the constituency level, where left-wing candidates were usually more experienced and better-known politicians in their constituencies. In view of the elections of 2006 and to reduce the risk of a probable defeat, Berlusconi managed to rush through approval of the new proportional electoral system with a majority premium—the Calderoli Law mentioned earlier—which abolished competition in the constituencies and provided for blocked lists, with the ultimate premium going to the coalition that received the most votes. Thus, the Left ended up losing its competitive edge in the constituencies and the Right was able to take full advantage of its main resource: the ability to broadcast Berlusconi’s rhetorical skills over the TV channels, completely obscuring the candidates on the ground. Aldo followed systematically the effects of the new electoral system in 2006, 2008, and 2013, observing the different geometries that were created in the three elections in relation to the strategic decisions of the actors.

In short: in 2006, the right and left both focused on broad and inclusive coalitions, with the result that they allowed Berlusconi to recover much of the lost ground forecast right before the vote and to even the score in the Senate, leaving the Left with just a one-seat majority, thanks to the senators elected abroad. In 2008, the two new parties, PD and PDL, followed an exclusionary rationale, with smaller and politically more uniform coalitions, which led part of the electorate to cast a “useful vote” and not to disperse it among the minor lists, except for the UDC, a centrist party that obtained some success as a “third” actor, thanks to the proportional system of the law, net of the majority premium.

In 2013, the composition of the supply was different yet again: the two poles of the left and right were joined by a pole of the center (Monti and allies), a list of the extreme left (Rivoluzione civile), and the Movimento 5 stelle, extraneous to the left–right dichotomy. The result, as is known, rewarded the left in the Chamber but, unfailingly, left it weaker in the Senate, where the majoritarian game was neutralized by the distribution of the 17 regional majority premiums to the respective winners.
It would abuse the reader’s patience to recall the other acute and elegant considerations that Aldo formulated, after three so utterly different outcomes stemming from the same electoral rules, in outlining a theory of the electoral supply. In concluding, I will simply recall his detailed analysis of the systemic outcomes of multiple candidacies, i.e., the possibility of nominating, without any limits, the same persons in multiple constituencies. In 2006, this opportunity was exploited to the maximum by the Right: Berlusconi and Fini were list headers in all constituencies of the Chamber of Deputies, and, in fact, they were elected 26 times each! Since there was only one seat to be filled, the candidate elected multiple times had to opt for one of the seats won, which started a waltz of candidates who moved up in the list, based on the decisions of those above them in the blocked list. Given this picture, which Aldo reconstructed with sophisticated statistical tools, it is no wonder that a wave of indignation arose in just a few months against the “caste” of “appointed”—and not elected—politicians. The outcry against appointed candidates was mostly groundless, since parties have always decided their candidacies based on the likelihood of a candidate winning in a specific constituency. But there is no doubt that the game of the options of multiple candidates has eliminated the representation bond of the elected with a specific territory!

A serious wound to democracy that Aldo was the first to analyze, indicating its relevance long before the populist wave raised its indignant crest.

At this point, we are left with the regret of not being able to follow Aldo in the analysis of the new electoral law, now under discussion in Parliament, to see whether and how it can (might) ameliorate the limits of the previous laws. But we have grasped his teaching: we are, in any case, warned that, whatever rules the legislature may establish, party leaders will, nevertheless, still have ample margins in choosing their political strategies. They will always have to take into account the size of their stock of loyal voters and the chances that it might have increased after the ballots are counted: “Ultimately, the point is that the supply, i.e., the coordination of parties and candidates, comes before the response of the voters, who, rather than coordinating themselves, are coordinated by the choices of parties” (2010, p. 71).

Farewell, Aldo, and thank you.

References

  • Di Virgilio, A. (1994) Dai partiti ai poli: la politica delle alleanze, in Bartolini, S. e D’Alimonte, R. (eds.) Maggioritario ma non troppo, Bologna, il Mulino, pp.177–232.
  • Di Virgilio, A. (1997) Le alleanze elettorali: identità partitiche e logiche coalizionali, in D’Alimonte, R. e Bartolini, S. (eds.) Maggioritario per caso, Bologna, il Mulino, pp.71–137.
  • Di Virgilio, A. (2010) Cambiare strategia a regole invariate. La rivoluzione dell’offerta, in D’Alimonte, R. e Chiaramonte A. (eds) Proporzionale se vi pare, Bologna, il Mulino, 2010, pp. 33–72.

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