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

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The leaders of Greece and Italy both claim to tackle the eurozone crisis through electoral reforms. But what approach might actually work?

Last year Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi presented a majority win-win overhaul – if the winning party gets at least 40% of the vote, a winner’s bonus would guarantee it gets 340 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 would have far less veto power over legislation.

italy referendum takes place on Sunday. Renzi argued Italy needed the change to end the political stalemate 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 way, eliminating the 50-seat bonus granted for decades to the largest party in Greek elections. Because it was approved by a simple majority in Parliament, not a super-majority, change should not come into force before the 2019 elections.

The euro zone is in crisis. Here are 4 important points.

Is the majority system a good idea?

In times of crisis, political leaders must pursue rapid reforms to address pressing economic issues. So which electoral system is most conducive to this goal? Some political scientists believe in the “consensual approach” and that a coalition of as many parties as possible should make those decisions. Others argue that in times of crisis a “steady hand” from a party with a simple majority is necessary.

The supporters of the majority approach in Italy and elsewhere argue that majorities facilitate political stability, streamline decision-making, and create accountable governments.

How the European Union has built stronger economies and better governments (even if Britain wants out)

Our research findings that this appeal rests on popular myths about political stability and efficiency. In fact, the comparative experience of European countries in the aftermath of the recent economic crisis suggests the opposite. Here’s what we’ve demystified:

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

Proponents argue that these rules enhance political stability, making reforms and economic stimulus more effective. But this argument does not take into account the effect of the defection of individual lawmakers from the ruling parties, if a financial crisis and difficult decisions arise. Once defections become a possibility, ruling parties postpone tax reforms or call new elections.

As our international data for southern Europe shows, Greece majority democracy was also the most prone to mass defections during critical decision-making moments (see figure).

There may be a hard lesson for Italy. In Greece, the biggest parties were over-incentivized to recruit populist figures to maximize their chances of being the first party and getting the bonus seats. But populist figures are less likely to stay disciplined during crises. Rather than supporting costly reforms and risking re-election, populist lawmakers prefer to cross the floor to join new parties or side with whoever appears to be in the lead. In Greece, this led to decision paralysis and more frequent elections.

2) The effectiveness of the majority system — Greek opposition leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis, of the centre-right New Democracy party, recently pleaded for a stronger executive. While Mitsotakis can represent Greece’s best hope for economic recoveryhis vision of the executive does not take into account the need to first build a broad political consensus for the necessary reforms.

Since the start of the eurozone crisis, successive Greek governments have announced ambitious reform plans – which was going nowhere as parties feared that even small changes in opinion poll readings could reduce their parliamentary representation in the next elections.

Likewise, it is easier for one-party governments to make counter-effective, even catastrophic decisions based solely on partisan considerations or ideological biases. Greece and the UK have strong majoritarian systems — and the ruling parties in both countries have triggered disastrous referenda over the past 18 months.

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

What happens to the left when it takes power? Look at the Greek party Syriza.

In majoritarian democracies, a party needs a smaller segment of the electorate to come to power (for example, no ruling party in the UK has won more than half of the popular vote since 1935). In times of crisis, the same mandate opportunities are present for radical parties, if they effectively mobilize their electorate.

In most continental European countries, by contrast, the first party still has to participate in coalition governments that often reflect larger majorities within society. They must also convince a certain number of partners of the credibility of his program, a real obstacle for the radicals. As we predicted in early 2015these constraints prevented Spain’s populist Podemos party from winning elections modeled on Syriza’s victory.

Even in the best of times, where populists adjust their programs under the threat of financial collapse, they lack of continuity and know-how govern effectively. Under the Greek majoritarian electoral system, the anti-systemic Syriza won a plurality of votes but had little experience in governing. The result was devastating decisions and the repetitive cycles of social and political strife that nearly led to financial collapse in Greece within months of Syriza coming to power.

There may be unintended consequences

In Greece, the eventual move to 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 Italy’s prime minister loses the referendum and resigns, the populist Five Star Movement could gain seats and power. Like Syriza’s trajectory to power, Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement recently won local elections. “majority elections” in Rome and Turin.

In what many analysts call the year of terrible referendums and elections, ignoring not just Greece’s but the world’s electoral woes could lead Italy into a similar trap. For majority supporters, referendums such as the one in Italy might seem like a suitable alternative to time-consuming consensus politics, but quick decisions could have devastating consequences.

More troubling, the implications of the December 4 referendum could go beyond Italy to affect the future of the European Union. Giving populist parties a faster path to power could lead to resentful majorities against the euro and threaten the continent’s integration.

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

Iossif Kovras is a lecturer in comparative politics at the City University of London. He is the director of the research project Truth, responsibility or impunity: transitional justice after the economic crisis, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ES/M011321/1).

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