Party Coordination in Legislative Elections: Comparing France and Italy

In memory of Aldo Di Virgilio

There are people, such as Aldo Di Virgilio, who are able to combine human and scientific qualities. We witnessed this uniqueness during our scientific collaboration with him which started some years ago, and continued until his untimely death. We had the opportunity to experience Aldo’s noble qualities during informal discussions held at various conferences. Regular cooperation with him, which took place over recent years, allowed us to see how much Aldo truly was a “gentleman researcher”. We are now left with our treasured memories of Aldo and the fruitful scientific exchanges we had with him. We remember especially our exchanges on issues relating to some of Aldo’s main scientific interests, in other words, the study of electoral systems, and the use of the institutional and comparative approaches in political science (Di Virgilio and Kato, 2001).

This short contribution summarizes a recent contribution, written by Aldo Di Virgilio, Annie Laurent and Bernard Dolez (forthcoming). It is based on the confluence of three scientific fields: the study of electoral systems combined with the institutional approach and comparative perspective. The goal of this recent contribution was to investigate party coordination in “complex” electoral systems, to quote Rein Taagepera (2010), such as France during the Fifth Republic and Italy since the mid-1990s. Our hypothesis was that political parties have more incentives to play with the rules in “complex” rather than “simple” electoral systems such as FPTP or PR.1 In countries using complex electoral systems, political actors may arrange the rules in different ways and modify institutional arrangements while learning the effects of the new rules. We also considered the historical context of electoral rules because institutional and political contexts matter. In fact, different types of elections and electoral rules may affect parties’ strategies for legislatives elections where other electoral races are important. This is the case in France and Italy where presidential and Senate elections respectively have important consequences. The aim of collaborative research with Aldo was to show how the use of some embedded electoral rules in France and Italy have influenced party strategies in legislative elections.

This research is part of a collaboration with a research group that was started some years ago. Within this group, Aldo played a central role. First, he was the initiator with Bernard Grofman (University of California, Irvine) of an early research seminar exploring “Two-bloc-politics in France and Italy.2 Second, he led the Italian part of a comparative scientific research programe dedicated to studying the coordination of parties in France and Italy. Third, he was co-editor with Annie Laurent (CNRS-CERAPS-Lille2) of a forthcoming special issue of ‘Revue internationale de politique comparée’ that will present the results of some of this work.

France and Italy have similar political characteristics. In particular, there is a tradition in both countries of having a polarized multiparty system. Or to quote Sartori, Italy and France have fragmented partisan systems with strong ideological polarization and centrifugal competition with some extreme parties (Sartori 1976). However, France and Italy’s political regimes and electoral systems are fundamentally different in other respects. The contrasts that may be drawn between France and Italy range from having, respectively, semi presidential versus parlimentary regimes to an unequal bicameral versus egalitarian bicameral systems. Another key dissimilarity between France and Italy has to do with their different electoral systems. France adopted a two round electoral system under the Fifth Republic leading to a long-standing system of party coordination during legislative elections resulting from stable arrangements that have favored the establishment and persistence of political “blocs”.3 In Italy, a series of electoral systems ranging from a pure proportional system of representation between 1946 and 1992, a mixed majoritarian system employed between 1994 and 2001 and more recently a proportional system with seat bonus since 2006 has led in recent times to a more fluid system of party coordination.4

Despites these differences, some institutional features allow us to understand why party coordination has become the rule in these two countries. One is the disproportionality of France’s and Italy’s electoral systems which clearly encourages political parties to cooperate and to establish electoral alliances in two particular situations, i.e. respectively when the legal threshold for advancing to the second round or the threshold for participation in allocation of seats is high. In the French case, the two-round system encourages political parties to coordinate on two fronts. First, in order to progress to the second round parties are motivated to form coalitions for the first round where the electoral coalition partners agree to endorse one candidate per constituency.5 Second, in order to win a maximum number of seats in the second round members of the electoral coalition implement a “discipline républicaine” where partner parties argree to withdraw their candidate in favour of the best ranked candidate in the “bloc”. In Italy, the series of electoral systems adopted since the 1990s have also encouraged political parties to form pre-electoral alliances to avoid the risk of being seriously penalized by the electoral rules. The Italian mixed majoritary electoral system adopted in 1993 favoured electoral alliances at the constituency level in order to win the maximum of the seats in the plurality tier. The proportional electoral system with bonus in operation since 2005 also provides incentives for pre-electoral coordination because these electoral rules define the threshold for allocation of seats according to the type of pre-electoral alliance. Here it is easier to win seats within a coalition by obtaining 2 per cent of the valid votes rather than standing as an independent party where 4 per cent of the valid votes are required to win a seat. Incentives to form pre-electoral alliances are stronger when there is a high bonus, which has been the case since 2005. Under the current system, 55 per cent of seats are given to the most popular list, or pre-electoral alliance, at the national level regardless of the number of valid votes. In short, Italy’s most recent electoral systems have encouraged political actors to form broad pre-electoral alliances that include parties which were left out on the sidelines when pure PR rules were in place between 1958 and 1992.

Beyond electoral rules, other institutional factors can encourage political parties to form pre-electoral legislative alliances through a “contamination” effect, when there are two major elections. Here both France and Italy are similar because both legislative and presidential elections are important in France, and Chamber and Senate elections in Italy are also major elections. Their electoral rules influence partisan legislatives strategies. From the outset French presidential elections had strong effects on both party coordination in legislative elections and on pre-electoral alliance stability. The Fifth Republic swept away “local customs and fragmentary considerations”6 that had characterized the two-round electoral system during the Third Republic. The introduction of presidential elections in France created and then strengthened the nationalization of candidate nominations and electoral behavior (Dolez and Laurent, 2001). It has contributed to “deterritorialized” legislative elections. This “contamination” effect is currently even more influential than in the past because legislative elections have been held just after presidential elections since 2002 (Parodi, 2007; Dolez and Laurent, 2010; Dupoirier and Sauger, 2010; Laurent, 2014). This presidential contamination of legislative elections has been reinforced by the addition of a “coattail effect” (Golder, 2006; Hicken and Stoll, 2011; Shugart and Carey, 1992).

In Italy, the egalitarian bicameralism system also affects partisan strategies, as a party or a coalition must obtain a majority in both legislative chambers. In this kind of situation, pre-electoral coordination can create a dilemma for parties as different electoral rules for lower and upper chambers are in place. For example, under electoral system adopted in 2005 the geographical level for allocating the seat bonus is at the national level for electing the Chamber, and at the regional level for Senate elections. Moreover, electoral thresholds for electing the Senate are higher than those for electing the Chamber of deputies. These differences can have important consequences.

For example, securing a majority in the Italian Senate was difficult in 2006, and proved impossible in 2013. Such results show that Italy’s egalitarian bicameralism can complicate partisan strategies because it tends both to undermine party coordination and favor “out of bloc” candidacies. In 2013 Mario Monti, as leader of a new centrist coalition, gambled that he could play the role of “pivot” in absence of any majority in the senate where he could support a center-left majority in the upper chamber or alternatively be guarantor of a grand ‘left-right’ coalition. Thus, Italy’s electoral rules encouraged Mario Monti to create his own electoral list.

In general, all rules (including electoral ones) act as both a constraint and a resource for actors. A “complex” electoral rule creates “complex” pressures for political actors that motivate them to change the rules. The comparison between the French and the Italian cases highlights both the constraints of complex rules on actors and the way in which they adapt their behavior through party coordination.

However, party coordination is not the product of an invisible hand that drives parties who were once competitors to become partners because of their shared electoral interests. Coalitions are also formed through a leader or party who takes the initiative to open up the electoral game. Political parties can then either accept or reject invitations to participate in a “new” game. In Italy, Silvio Berlusconi “invented”, albeit in an imperfect way, party coordination at the district level when the mixed electoral system was adopted in 1994. In France, François Mitterrand played a decisive role in bringing together first the “non-communist parties”, then all the left-wing parties with the signature of the joint program in 1972. For his part, Valéry Giscard D’Estaing played an equally important role for the non-Gaullist parties, as well as Jacques Chirac, when he created the UMP in 2002. Having a common enemy is sometimes the main factor, which can explain the creation of pre-electoral alliances. For example, Charles De Gaulle played a federal role in 1962 with the creation of the “Cartel des Non” against him. Silvio Berlusconi played a similar role pushing the creation of centre-left coalitions in 1996 and 2006. On each these occasions, these “Cartel des Non” coalitions were cemented by opposition to two powerful leaders.

Today, the electoral game is therefore more open than in the past because the electoral rules are still in a process of change. Planned constitutional and electoral reforms in Italy, and the introduction of more proportional rules for the French legislative elections of 2017 would undoubtedly change the political systems on both sides of the Alps. If these reforms will be implemented, French and Italian politicians will be compelled to change their electoral strategies once again.

There is no doubt that Aldo would have engaged in a serious way with these important issues, and especially with those relating to reform of the Italian Senate and the Italian electoral system. His passing is a both a great loss for European political science and for his many friends both within and outside academia.


1 In a broader sense, electoral rules can be considered as the tools thanks to which political forces will go to use the legislative and executive processes, manage their resources (the voters) and more generally their respective interests (Laurent A., Delfosse P. and Frognier A.-P, 2004).

2 September 16-17, 2011, Bologna, Italy.

3 It is important to note that the legislative elections of 1986 were held using PR at the level of the department.

4 Except in the elections of 1953.

5 In France, this threshold has been progressively increased. It was 5% of the valid votes at the beginning of the Fifth Republic, and 10% of the registrants in 1967. It has been 12.5% of the registered voters since 1978. Today, due to the low level of turnout, a party has growing difficulties in crossing this threshold. For example, in the legislative elections of 2012 a candidate had to get more than 20% of the valid votes to progress to the second round (except if the candidate was ranked second in the first round, in which case they qualified for the second round automatically).

6 Charles de Gaulle, speech on November 7, 1962 (translated by the authors).


  • Di Virgilio A., Dolez B., and Laurent A., «Systèmes électoraux ‘complexes’, coordination pré-électorale complexe. Une comparaison France-Italie » (Forthcoming in the Revue international de politique comparée).
  • Di Virgilio A., and Kato K., 2001, «Factionalisme, coalitions et fragmentation politique. Qu’est-ce qui a vraiment changé dans le système partisan au Japon et en Italie dans la décennie 1990?». Revue française de science politique, 2001/4 – Vol. 51, 87-619.
  • Dolez B., and Laurent A. “La nationalisation des comportements électoraux”, In, Perrineau P., and Reynie D., (eds.), Dictionnaire du vote, Paris, PUF, 2001.
  • Dolez B., and Laurent A., “Strategic voting in a semi-presidential system with a two-ballot electoral system. The 2007 French legislative elections,” French Politics, Vol. 8, 1, 2010, 1–20.
  • Dupoirier E., and Sauger, N., “Four Rounds in a Row: The impact of presidential election outcomes on legislative elections in France”, French Politics, Vol. 8, 1, 2010, 21-41.
  • Golder M., “Presidential Coattails and Legislative Fragmentation”, American Journal of Political Science, 2006, 50: p. 34-48.
  • Hicken A., and Stoll H., “Presidents and Parties: How Presidential Elections Shape Coordination in Legislative Elections.” Comparative Political Studies 2011, 44 (7): 854- 883.
  • Laurent A., «Des effets de l’inversion du calendrier électoral sur la fragmentation du système partisan français (1967-2012)», in: Deloye Y., Deze A., and Maurer S. (Eds.) Institutions, élections, opinion. Mélanges en l’honneur de Jean-Luc Parodi, Paris, Presses de Sciences Po, 2014, 119-138.
  • Laurent A., Delfosse P. and Frognier A.-P., (eds.) Les systèmes électoraux: permanences et innovations, Paris, L’Harmattan, 2004.
  • Parodi J.-L., “L’ancrage d’une curiosité française: L’élection ‘exécutive’ à quatre tours.” Revue française de Science politique, vol. 57, n° 3-4, 2007, 285-29.
  • Sartori G., Parties and Party Systems. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976.
  • Shugart M., and Carey J., Presidents and Assemblies: Constitutional Design and Electoral Dynamics. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
  • Taagepera R., “Le macro-agenda duvergérien, à demi-achevé”, Revue Internationale de Politique Comparée, Vol. 17, n° 1, 2010, 93-110.

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