An introductory guide to the Italian political system

Italian politics is complex and often confusing. Wondering what the president actually does? Why some regions are treated differently? And what about elections? The Local is here to explain.

An introductory guide to the Italian political system
The Quirinale presidential palace in Rome. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

It’s a republic

The official name of the country is ‘the Italian Republic’.

Up until the Second World War, Italy was ruled by kings. But in June 1946, Italians voted to abolish the monarchy in a referendum, and the country became a democratic republic.

The 'First Republic' lasted until around 1992, when a series of scandals rocked Italy's major political parties. The period from then until now is known as the Second Republic, because of the major changes to the parties, but there was no constitutional change.

The president (currently Sergio Mattarella) is the head of state, though this is a largely ceremonial role. 

Italian president asks parliament to approve new electoral law 'urgently'
Italian President Sergio Mattarella. Photo: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP

There's a constitution

If you want to get specific, Italy is a constitutional republic. The constitution – a set of 139 articles which establish the basic ground rules of society – came into effect in 1948.

The articles are divided into three categories: fundamental principles, rights and duties of the citizens, and organization of the Republic.

It is very difficult to amend Italy’s constitution; this is to stop would-be dictators replacing it with a version that gives them too much power. However, it’s not impossible and a total of 13 amendments have been made since it was first drawn up.

The Italian Constitution (L) and the swearing-in oath are pictured on the desk of Italy's president prior to a new Cabinet swearing-in ceremony at the Quirinale palace in Rome. Photo: AFP

Laws or court rulings can be challenged if seen to conflict with an article of the constitution. The Constitutional Court, made up of 15 judges (the president, parliament, and judges of other courts elect five each), decides on such cases.

Threeway division of power

There are three branches of power in Italy: executive, legislative, and juridical.

The executive power is in the hands of the Council of the Ministers, presided over by the President of the Council – more commonly known as the Prime Minister.

The ministers are responsible for executing laws and other political decisions. This is usually done by presenting bills to parliament, but can also be done by passing decrees – this happens in cases of urgency, or if parliament gives the council the authority to do so.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. Photo: AFP

The legislative power belongs to parliament, whose main job is to make laws (more on how this works later).

Parliament can also make amendments to the constitution, and is responsible for reviewing and guiding the government.

Meanwhile, the judiciary power belongs to judges, who are responsible for implementing the laws passed by parliament. They are not elected but are chosen based on exam results and internal commissions, and they serve for life.

The president is not elected by the people

Italy's presidents are elected by secret ballot by parliament and regional representatives. They serve seven-year terms, and the reason for this is so that they won't be re-elected by the same parliament (both houses have five-year terms).

Only one president has ever been elected to a second term: Giorgio Napolitano agreed to stand again in 2013, a time when Italy was in economic and political crisis, in order to guarantee continuity. He resigned in 2015.

Any Italian citizen aged over 50 can stand, but they must resign from any other public office before officially becoming president.

The president has some key duties such as naming the prime minister (though this usually happens after a general election), calling for elections, calling referendums, and officially putting laws into effect (though they are created and passed by others).

A bicameral parliament

Italy’s parliament is made up of two houses which both have equal power: The Chamber of Deputies (or Lower House) and the Senate (Upper House).

The Chamber of Deputies has 630 members, and only Italian citizens aged over 25 can stand for election. The Senate has 315 elected members, who must be at least 40 years old to stand. In both cases, members are elected for five-year terms, which can only be extended if Italy goes to war.

The Chamber of Deputies. Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP

There are also a few senators for life, including former presidents of Italy and others appointed by presidents for outstanding merit in their field.

To create a new law in Italy, a bill needs to be passed by both Houses. They must both agree on all amendments made to the bill – which is one of the reasons bills sometimes end up stuck in gridlock for years.

How elections work

Under a new electoral law introduced in 2017, Italians get two votes, one for each of the houses, and can vote for different parties in each if they wish. In total, 37 percent of the seats in each house will be allocated via the first-past-the-post system (directly elected), and 64 percent proportionally (indirectly elected based on lists).

So some seats will be filled by candidates directly elected to represent their local constituency, with the rest divided proportionally between each party depending on their performance nationwide.

Voters can't split their vote between the first-past-the-post and proportional representation system, so a vote for a first-past-the-post candidate is a vote for the party or coalition they are aligned with.

In order to gain the seats awarded through proportional representation, parties must get a minimum of three percent of the vote in both houses; for coalitions, that figure rises to ten percent.

The only exception to this is the senators for life. 

Another interesting fact is that Italy is one of the only countries in the world to reserve seats (12 in the Chamber of Deputies and six in the Senate) for Italians who live abroad.

Workers open the ballots during Italy's general election in 2013. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

Voting age

All Italian citizens aged over 18 can vote for members of the Chamber of Deputies. When it comes to Senate elections, however, the voting age rises to 25.

This anomaly has been criticized as one of the reasons Italy’s legislation is seen as skewered towards protecting the older generation.

Voices from several of the main political parties have called for the age to be lowered to 18 – with some suggesting that the right to vote be extended to 16-year-olds.

Lots of political parties

Italy has many different political parties, some of which are only active in certain regions. 

After World War II, Italian politics was largely dominated by the centrist Party of Christian Democracy and the left-wing Italian Communist Party, though several other smaller parties enjoyed significant influence.

That was until the 1990s, when Italian politics was rocked both by the collapse of Communist regimes across Europe, and the Mani Pulite (Clean Hands) investigation into political corruption in Italy – which caused huge damage to the reputation of all the main political parties.

After that, the Italian Communist Party became the Democratic Party of the Left, a predecessor of today’s Democratic Party, while the Party of Christian Democracy faded into political obscurity. This paved the way for new parties, and the Northern League and Forza Italia were among those which arrived on the right wing.

Italian voters have plenty of parties to chose from. Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP

Today, the Democratic Party, the League, and Forza Italia are considered three of the four main parties, together with the Five Star Movement, an anti-establishment party which claims to be neither left nor right and was founded in 2009.

Other significant parties include: the far-right Brothers of Italy; the centre-right Popular Alternative; the pro-EU +Europa; the Liberal Popular Alliance and the centrist Civic Choice.

And if that sounds confusing, just remember there are plenty more minor parties, as well as several which are confined to specific regions.

Regional governments

Italy was only unified in 1861, and its 20 regions more or less correspond to the historical regions. Italy is further divided into 110 provinces and almost 8,000 comuni.

The majority of the regions don’t have much power, particularly when compared to federal states such as Germany. They keep only 20 percent of tax revenue, and the constitution grants them ” legislative powers in all subject matters that are not expressly covered by State legislation”, which in practice doesn't amount to much.

But five regions (Aosta Valley, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Sardinia, Sicily, Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol) have special status, meaning their governments have special constitutional powers and greater control over local laws and money. If you look at a map, you'll see these regions all lie on Italy's borders, and the special status helps them preserve cultural differences.

Bilingual signs in Alto Adige/Südtirol, one of Italy's five regions with special autonomy. Photo: Joe Klamar/AFP

Presidents from the special status regions can also join in sessions with the Council of Ministers when issues relevant to them (rather than general issues affecting all the regions) are being discussed.

If you thought this might make the other regions jealous, you’d be right, and in the north-eastern regions in particular, there is strong support for a similar status.

Voter turnout

Italians are historically extremely politically engaged. Though voting hasn’t been compulsory since 1992, voter turnout has only dipped below 80 percent in the past two elections.

In 2018's general election, it reached a historic low of just under 73 percent.

You can find all the latest political news from Italy here.



Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


Italian government rocked by Five Star party split

Italy’s government was plunged into turmoil on Tuesday as foreign minister Luigi Di Maio announced he was leaving his party to start a breakaway group.

Italian government rocked by Five Star party split

Di Maio said his decision to leave the Five Star Movement (M5S) – the party he once led – was due to its “ambiguity” over Italy’s support of Ukraine following Russia’s invasion.

He accused the party’s current leader, former prime minister Giuseppe Conte, of undermining the coalition government’s efforts to support Ukraine and weakening Italy’s position within the EU.

“Today’s is a difficult decision I never imagined I would have to take … but today I and lots of other colleagues and friends are leaving the Five Star Movement,” Di Maio told a press conference on Tuesday.

“We are leaving what tomorrow will no longer be the first political force in parliament.”

His announcement came after months of tensions within the party, which has lost most of the popular support that propelled it to power in 2018 and risks being wiped out in national elections due next year.

The split threatens to bring instability to Draghi’s multi-party government, formed in February 2021 after a political crisis toppled the previous coalition.

As many as 60 former Five Star lawmakers have already signed up to Di Maio’s new group, “Together for the Future”, media reports said.

Di Maio played a key role in the rise of the once anti-establishment M5S, but as Italy’s chief diplomat he has embraced Draghi’s more pro-European views.

READ ALSO: How the rebel Five Star Movement joined Italy’s establishment

Despite Italy’s long-standing political and economic ties with Russia, Draghi’s government has taken a strongly pro-NATO stance, sending weapons and cash to help Ukraine while supporting EU sanctions against Russia.

Di Maio backed the premier’s strong support for Ukraine following Russia’s invasion, including sending weapons for Kyiv to defend itself.

In this he has clashed with the head of Five Star, former premier Giuseppe Conte, who argues that Italy should focus on a diplomatic solution.

Di Maio attacked his former party without naming Conte, saying: “In these months, the main political force in parliament had the duty to support the diplomacy of the government and avoid ambiguity. But this was not the case,” he said.

Luigi Di Maio (R) applauds after Prime Minister Mario Draghi (L) addresses the Italian Senate on June 21st, 2022. Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP

“In this historic moment, support of European and Atlanticist values cannot be a mistake,” he added.

The Five Star Movement, he said, had risked the stability of the government “just to try to regain a few percentage points, without even succeeding”.

But a majority of lawmakers – including from the Five Star Movement – backed Draghi’s approach in March and again in a Senate vote on Tuesday.

Draghi earlier on Tuesday made clear his course was set.

“Italy will continue to work with the European Union and with our G7 partners to support Ukraine, to seek peace, to overcome this crisis,” he told the Senate, with Di Maio at his side.

“This is the mandate the government has received from parliament, from you. This is the guide for our action.”

The Five Star Movement stormed to power in 2018 general elections after winning a third of the vote on an anti-establishment ticket, and stayed in office even after Draghi was parachuted in to lead Italy in February 2021.

But while it once threatened to upend the political order in Italy, defections, policy U-turns and dismal polling have left it struggling for relevance.

“Today ends the story of the Five Star Movement,” tweeted former premier Matteo Renzi, who brought down the last Conte government by withdrawing his support.