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A SHORT GUIDE TO THE

ITALIAN POLITICAL SYSTEM

Contents


INTRODUCTION

The modern state of Italy came into force on 17 March 1861 when King Victor Emmanuel II of Piedmont-Sardinia signed into law a bill in which he took for himself the title King of Italy. In a recent book on Italy ["The Pursuit Of Italy" by David Gilmour, 2011], we learn that at the time of Italian reunification, a mere 2.5% of Italians spoke what we would recognise as Italian which perhaps underlines the fractious nature of the country to this day.

Italy adopted a new constitution in 1948 after the traumatic experience of Mussolini's fascism and the Second World War. Unusually the two Houses of the Italian Parliament possess the same rights and powers - a particular form of parliamentary democracy known as perfect bicameralism. However, this is far from being the only oddity of the Italian political system.

Italy is something of an aberration in the democratic sweep of Europe. For decades, it somehow combined the maintenance of the same political party in power with constant changes of government while, in more recent years, it has witnessed a fundamental transformation in the pattern of political parties and this process is still in flux.

Meanwhile, in recent years, the electoral system has been changed frequently and substantially and the current version is both immensely complex and hugely controversial.

Politics in Italy is constantly beset with scandal and corruption and, for so long, it has seemed astonishing that the Italian economic system could be so robust, when the Italian political system has been so chaotic - and I write as a half-Italian. It was inevitable that, sooner or later, the weaknesses in the poiltical system would translate into problems for the economic system and so it proved in the Eurozone crisis of 2011.

THE EXECUTIVE BRANCH

The Italian monarchy was abolished in a referendum of 1946 (when my mother voted against the retention of the King) and, under the constitution of 1948, the head of state is the President of the Republic. He is elected for seven years in a secret ballot by a two-thirds majority of the Parliament sitting jointly with 58 regional delegates. If after three rounds of voting no candidate can secure a two-thirds majority, then for further rounds a simple majority will suffice.

The Italian President of the Republic heads the armed forces and has powers to veto legislation, disband parliament and call elections. He nominates the senior Government minister, called the President of the Council (equivalent to the British Prime Minister). The current President of the Republic is Giorgio Napolitano who is a former Communist Party member. In April 2013, Napolitano was elected for an unprecedented second term at the age of 87. This reflected the inability of the deadlocked Parliament elected two months previously to select a different President.

Day to day power is exercised by the President of the Council who is nominated by the President of the Republic (one needs to be careful with the term President in Italy) and confirmed by the Parliament.

Following the inconclusive General Election of February 2013, it took two months and the resignation of Pier Luigi Bersani from the leadership of the winning Democratic Party before a new leader of the party Enrico Letta was apppionted President of the Council. At the time of his appointment, he was 46, making him the youngest prime minister since Giovanni Goria in 1987. But Letta did not last long. In February 2014, he was replaced by Matteo Renzi who, at the age of just 39, is Italy's youngest ever prime minister. This is Italy's 64th government since the Second World War.

It is the President of the Council who proposes the other ministers (formally named by the President of the Republic). The Government ministers make up the Council of Ministers. In the unusual circumstances of the outcome of the last General Election, the curret Council of Ministers is a 'grand coalition' made up of nine members from the Democratic Party (PD), five from the People of Freedom (PdL), and three from Civic Choice (SC).

Vice-ministers - called "Sottosegretari" (Undersecretaries) - are not formal members of the Council.

In Italy, anyone can be appointed a minister, with no requirement to be a member of the Parliament or a political party. Indeed, when Mario Monti became President of the Council, he ensured that all his 17-strong cabinet were technocrats with more than a third of them professors.

Italian Governments are notoriously unstable. In fact, since 1945 only one has served a full five-year term of office.

THE CHAMBER OF DEPUTIES

The lower house in the Italian political system is the Chamber of Deputies. It has 630 members elected by all Italian citizens older than 18.

617 members are elected by proportional representation from party lists for each of 26 districts. Lombardy has three constituencies, Piedmont, Veneto, Latium, Campania and Sicily each have two constituencies, and all the other 13 regions have one. Another Deputy is elected in the Aosta Valley (a mountainous region in north-western Italy).

A peculiarity of the Italian Parliament is the representation given to Italians who are permanently living abroad (about 2.7 million people). Therefore, as well as the 618 nationally elected Deputies, there are 12 elected in four distinct foreign constituencies.

The term of office of Deputies is five years, but the Parliament may be dissolved by the President before then if it proves impossible to form a stable government (this has happened six times since the war).

The election system for the Chamber of Deputies is new and complex. In its newest form, it dates only from 2005; its complexity comes from the fact that it combines a proportional representation system (a version of which produced so many weak post-war governments) with a 'prize' for the coalition securing the largest number of votes (so that the resulting government has a stronger basis than would otherwise be the case).

To obtain seats, some thresholds must be surpassed on a national basis as follows:

As an Italian friend of mine put it: "Look!!! I fund a party, my mother another one and my father as well. We join together into a coalition and we get 30 votes (just the votes of the neighbourhood), rather far from 2%. But, as candidate of the first party, I can claim for a seat. In Italy everybody can go the Parliament, thatÂ’s democracy!"

Finally, the coalition or party that obtains the largest number of seats but is assigned less than 340 seats, is assigned additional seats to reach this number, which corresponds roughly to a 54% majority. This is the 'prize' and this is the incentive to form coalitions.

The Chamber of Deputies actually sits in a palace: the Palazzo Montecitorio.

THE SENATE

The upper house in the Italian political system is the Senate which has equal legislative rights to the Chamber of Deputies. It has 315 members elected by all Italian citizens older than 25.

309 members are elected by a system of proportional representation system based upon party lists for the 20 regions of Italy. The minimum age for candidates is 40.

As mentioned earlier, an oddity of the Italian Parliament is the representation given to Italians abroad. Therefore, as well as the 309 nationally elected Senators, there are 6 elected in four distinct foreign constituencies.

The term of office of elected Senators is five years,

As well as these 315 elected Senators, the Senate includes former Presidents and appointed Senators for life (no more than five) by the President of the Republic according to special constitutional provisions.

The electoral system for the Senate is very similar to the one for the Chamber of Deputies, but it is in many ways transferred from a national to to a regional basis. Therefore the thresholds - which are different - are applied on a regional basis as follows:

The coalition that wins the largest number of seats in a region is automatically given 55% of that region's seats, if it has not reached that percentage already. In contrast to the situation for the Chamber of Deputies, there is no mechanism to guarantee a nation-wide majority in the Senate.

So the real oddity in this electoral system is the lack of a 'prize' in the Senate. As widely confessed by Roberto Calderoli (a Senator from the Northern League and the creator of this electoral law), the new electoral system was written and approved during the last months of the Berlusconi Government in order to put the new winning coalition (at that time the Centre-Left coalition was substantially ahead in the opionion polls) in trouble with a weak majority in the Senate. In Italy, this electoral law is infamous and well known by everybody for its amusing 'nickname', the "porcata" (a rather rude way to say 'a load of rubbish') and this is the name that television and newspapers often use to refer to it.

The Senate actually sits in a palace: the Palazzo Madama.

POLITICAL PARTIES

After the end of the Second World War, Italian politics - and even more so its government - was dominated by a single political party Democrazia Cristiana (DC - Christian-Democrats) for more than forty years, while the opposition was led by the Italian Communist Party (PCI). The third important party was the Italian Socialist Party (PSI). Accordingly, in the period 1946-1992, there were no less than 28 governments and all but two of them were headed by a Christian Democrat.

Everything changed in the early 1990s. First, all the governing parties were caught up in a major scandal called the Tangentopoli and dissolved themselves so that the Christian Democratic and the Socialist parties ceased to exist. Second, following referenda of 1993, substantial electoral changes were introduced, shifting the country from an unstable system of proportional representation to a more stable additional member system (although the voters had actually expressed a wish for a majoritarian system similar to the French model [click here]). Third, a further electoral change provides a 'prize' to the coalition which secures the largest number of votes in the Chamber of Deputies (which is intended the give the government a stronger base) which has the effect of encouraging political parties to join one of two or three major coalitions.

The results of all these changes are that, in an effort to maximise votes, simultaneously political parties are splitting and political power is has recently been contested by two broad coalitions bringing together most of these (often small) parties:

In the General Election of 24 & 25 February 2013, this straight Left-Right contest was complicated by another coalition and another party: In the February 2013 election, Berlusconi and Grillo - in their very different ways, both populist figures - did exceptionally well which resulted in a complicated and unstable outcome. Although the split of votes for the four groupings was similar for the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate - the 'winner' in each case was the Democratic Party with around 30% of the vote - the very different rules for allocation of seats in the two chambers means that the PD will have a (bare) majority in the Chamber of Deputies but nothing like that in the Senate. This means that a new government will find it very difficult to pass legislation and the likelihood is a short unstable government followed by an early election.

The factionalism of Italian politics has some echoes of the party political situation in India [click here] but, in European terms, this situation of a multiplicity of parties and changing alliances is unique.

THE JUDICIAL BRANCH

The Constitutional Court of Italy is the country's supreme court. It is composed of 15 judges: one-third appointed by the President, one-third elected by the Parliament, and one-third elected by the ordinary and administrative supreme courts. The Constitutional Court is a post-war innovation. Its powers, volume, and frequency of decisions are not as extensive as those of the Supreme Court in the United states

The other senior court is the Court of Cassation.

Given the conflict and corruption in the Italian political system, the courts in Italy find themselves embroiled in political issues in a manner largely unknown elsewhere in Europe.

So it was the courts who played a major role in provoking the fundamental political restructuring and realignments of the early 1990s as a result of the exposure of the corruption-based system called Tangentopoli (Italian for bribeville) that dominated the country until the 'Mani pulite' ('clean hands') investigation delivered it a (possibly fatal) blow in 1992. The 'clean hands' operation exposed corruption at the highest levels of politics and big business. Several former prime ministers were implicated and thousands of businessmen and politicians were investigated.

CONCLUSION

Perhaps only in Italy could a business leader (Silvio Berlusconi) create a major political party (Forza Italia) from scratch and then become Prime Minister while simultaneously owning the majority of the country's television channels and while still in office facing substantial corruption and sex-related charges. In November 2011, Berlusconi finally fell from power after 17 years at the top, although he did remarkably well in the last election, coming within 0.5% of the share of the vote required to make him a winner.

Perhaps only in Italy could a political party only three years old (the Five Star Movement) led by a well-known comedian (Giuseppe Grillo) win around a quarter of the vote and become the largest single pary in the lower house. Yet Grillo is not actually in the Parliament because he falls foul of his own rule that no elected politician should have a criminal record (he has a 1980 driving conviction for manslaughter after a crash in which passengers were killed).

Therefore Italian democracy remains a work in progress and a work in turmoil. We cannot be sure how long the new government will last, we cannot be sure that the electoral law will not be changed again, and we do not know what might be the consequences of a new election. The current prime minister has made it clear that he wishes to see a new constitutional architecture with a single legislative chamber elected through a system that produces a clear winner. Since Italy is the third largest member of the Eurozone, the politcal situation in the country has profound consequences for the whole Eurozone and by implication the world economy.

ROGER DARLINGTON

Last modified on 13 December 2014

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