Back to home page click here

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.

From the late 19th century to the early 20th century, the new Kingdom of Italy rapidly industrialised, although mainly in the north, while the south remained largely impoverished and excluded from industrialisation, fuelling a large and influential diaspora. This economic cleavage remains and to this day is reflected substantially in the politics of the nation.

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. Furthermore, over the last decade or so, the electoral system has been changed frequently and substantially and the current version is complex and controversial.

The current electoral system and fragmentation of political parties means that often a goverment can only be formed with a coalition of parties. The Italian Constitution does not provide time limits for the formation of coalition governments, so it can be the case that Italy goes months without a government while coalition talks progress.

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 political system would translate into problems for the economic system and so it proved in the Eurozone crisis of 2011 and the populist ascendancy of 2018.

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 Sergio Mattarella who was inaugurated in February 2015. Previously he was one of the founders of the Democratic Party, a big tent centre-left party, and he is notably a supporter of Italy's membership of the Eurozone.

The official residence of the President of the Republic is the Palazzo del Quirinale.

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.

The General Election of 4 March 2018 produced a complex result and negotiations to form a new government - Italy's 66th government since the Second World War - eventually took almost three months. The new governing alliance is an unlikely combination of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S), which has most of its support in the south, and the far-Right League, which has most of its support in the north. Between them, they command a majority in the Chamber of Deputies and a narrow majority in the Senate.

Once they agreed to form a government together, they nominated as President of the Council (or Prime Minister) a virtually unknown law professor Giuseppe Conte who is a member of the Five Star Movement but has no experience whatsoever of political office. However, in a matter of days, he resigned because the President of the Republic Sergio Mattarella refused to accept his nomination as Finance Minister of a critic of Italy's membership of the Eurozone. Mattarella then appoined Carlo Cottarelli, a former official at the International Monetary Fund, as interim Prime Minister pending another general election. However, a few days later the coalition parties backed down on the nomination of Finance Minister and Mattarella accepted a government led by Conte.

The official residence of the President of the Council is the Palazzo Chigi.

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. Following the agreement between the Five Star Movement and the League on formation of an administration, the new government is comprised of 18 ministers. There are nine Cabinet members from the Five Star, seven from the League and two technocrats. Six of the 18 are from Lombardy, Italy's richest region and a League stronghold.

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 two have 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 which has equal legislative rights to the Senate.

One of the many complications in understanding the Italian political system is that the electoral system keeps changing. The 2006, 2008 and 2013 elections were fought under a system that awarded a large majority in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house, to whichever party came first, however slim the margin of victory. That was struck down by the Constitutional Court in 2013 which determined that the concentration of power was unjustified.

In its place, then Prime Minister Matteo Renzi proposed a two-round ballot in which the top two groups nationally would go forward to a run-off vote to control the lower house. But that was also struck down by the Court in 2017, leaving the current premier, Paolo Gentiloni, scrambling to agree a new system in time for the election of March 2018.

So the current system - the third in just five years - is a mixture of first past the post (FPTP) and proportional representation (PR). A total of 232 seats are reserved for FPTP winners and 386 seats are allocated to PR candidates. When one adds 12 seats for overseas constituencies elected purely proportionally, the current Chamber of Deputies has 630 seats.

Parties can stand alone, in which case they must clear a 3% threshold to win seats. Or parties can stand in a pre-announced coalition - which the current electoral system favours - with a threshold of 10%. But, unlike the previous electoral system, the current system does not give an automatic majority to any party or alliance that wins 40% of the vote.

The lower house is elected by all Italian citizens older than 18.

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.

The current system - like that for the Chamber of Deputies - is a mixture of first past the post (FPTP) and proportional representation (PR). A total of 116 seats are reserved for FPTP winners and 193 seats are allocated to PR candidates. When one adds 6 seats for overseas constituencies elected purely proportionally, the current Senate has 315 seats.

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 upper house is elected by all Italian citizens older than 25.

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

Note: A constitutional referendum was held on 4 December 2016 when voters were asked whether they approved of amending the Italian Constitution to transform the Senate of the Republic into a "Senate of Regions" composed of 100 senators mainly made up of regional councillors and mayors. The proposal was roundly defeated leading to the resignation of the Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. This was the third constitutional referendum in Italy in fifteen years: the previous two were in 2001 and 2006.

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 40 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 provided a 'prize' to the coalition which secured the largest number of votes in the Chamber of Deputies (which was intended to give the government a stronger base) that had the effect of encouraging political parties to join one of two or three major coalitions.

Then, in the general election of 4 March 2018, there was more change when the old electoral system - which had been ruled unconstitutional - was replaced by a new one, mixing directly elected seats and seats allocated by proportional representation but with no 'prize'. The last election was contested by five main groupings resulting in a spread of support in the Chamber of Deputies:

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 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 Supreme Court of Cassation which is the highest court of appeal or court of last resort in Italy. The Court of Cassation also ensures the correct application of law in the inferior and appeal courts and resolves disputes as to which lower court (penal, civil, administrative, military) has jurisdiction to hear a given case.

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.

The Italian legal system is inordinately complicated and most lawyers (avvocato) and judges (giudici) are challenged by the conflicts between different laws, many of which date back centuries. There are literally thousands of laws, most of which are ignored, and newcomers must learn where to draw the line between laws that are enforced and those that are not or are only weakly enforced. It sometimes appears that there is one law for foreigners and another for Italians, and fines (multe) are commonplace.

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 is now back as a major player.

Perhaps only in Italy could a political party only a few years old (the Five Star Movement) led by a well-known comedian (Giuseppe Grillo) win around a third of the vote and become the largest single party 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).

Now that a new coalition government has been formed between the anti-establishment parties Five Star (M5S) and the League, both Italy and the European Union are in new territory. The coalition parties have very different policies and personalities; the government has only a tiny majority in the Senate; and many of the government's policies appear to violate EU law. These are troubled times for Italy - but this is nothing new ...

ROGER DARLINGTON

Last modified on 2 June 2018

If you would like to comment on this essay e-mail me

For guides to the political systems of other nations click here


Back to home page click here