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, i.e. the Italian cabinet, 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 two presidents have ever been elected to a second term: Mattarella, who was persuaded to take up the mantle again in January 2022 in the absence of any viable alternatives; and Giorgio Napolitano.

Napolitano agreed to stand again in 2013, another period of economic and political crisis for Italy, 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 currently has 630 members, and only Italian citizens aged over 25 can stand for election. The Senate currently has 315 elected members, who must be at least 40 years old to stand.

Those numbers will change come the next elections, however, as Italians voted in a September 2020 constitutional referendum to reduce the number of parliamentarians to 400 and the number of senators to 200.

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 an 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 (currently 12 in the Chamber of Deputies and six in the Senate – this will be reduced to eight in the lower house and four in the upper house come the next election) 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 both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate.

Until relatively recently, the voting age for Senate elections was 25.

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

In July 2021, parliament passed a reform lowering the voting age to 18 across the board.

Voices from several of the main political parties had called for the age to be lowered – 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 (now just the 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 five 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, and the Brothers of Italy, a far-right party with neo/post fascist roots formed in 2012 that now looks set to lead a right-wing coalition government after the next general election.

Other significant parties include: 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.

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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.

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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.

There are signs that voter turnout in Italy is now on the decline. 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.

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EU ministers hold crisis talks after migrant ship row between Italy and France

European interior ministers met in Brussels on Friday to discuss the latest migrant crisis – a move that was precipitated by Italy's controversial clash with France over the handling of refugees.

EU ministers hold crisis talks after migrant ship row between Italy and France

European interior ministers gathered for crisis talks on Friday as an ugly row between Paris and Rome over how to handle would-be refugees forced a EU migration reform back onto their agenda.

New arrival numbers haven’t yet hit the levels of 2015 and 2016, but European capitals are concerned about new pressure on sea routes from North Africa and overland through the western Balkans.

And now, with winter temperatures descending in eastern Europe and Ukrainian cities facing power cuts under Russian bombardment, the European Union is braced for many more war refugees.

The bloc has been struggling for years to agree and implement a new policy for sharing responsibility for migrants and asylum seekers, but a new dispute has brought the issue to the fore.

READ ALSO: Why are France and Italy rowing over migrants and what are the consequences?

Earlier this month, Italy’s new government under far-right leader Georgia Meloni refused to allow a Norwegian-flagged NGO ship to dock with 234 migrants rescued from the Mediterranean.

The Ocean Viking eventually continued on to France, where authorities reacted with fury to Rome’s stance, suspending an earlier deal to take in 3,500 asylum seekers stranded in Italy.

The row undermined the EU’s stop-gap interim solution to the problem, and Paris called Friday’s extraordinary meeting of interior ministers from the 27 member states.

Migrants in Lampedusa, Italy

Earlier this month, France suspended a deal by which it would take as many as 3,500 refugees stranded in Italy. Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP

Complaints from Mediterranean countries closer to North African shores like Italy and Greece that they were shouldering too much responsibility for migrants led to the previous plan.

A dozen EU members agreed to take on 8,000 asylum seekers – with France and Germany taking 3,500 each – but so far just 117 relocations have taken place.

‘Nothing new’

After Italy refused responsibility for the Ocean Viking, France has declared that it no longer wants to not only allow ships to arrive from Italian waters but also take in thousands of other migrants.

On Monday, in a bid to revive the mechanism, the European Commission unveiled another action plan to better regulate arrivals on the central Mediterranean route.

“Obviously the meeting was set up following the spat between Italy and France over the migrants aboard the Ocean Viking,” a European diplomat said.

“The action plan that was shared with member states is perfectly fine, but contains nothing new, so it isn’t going to solve the migration issue.”

Stephanie Pope, an expert on migration for the aid agency Oxfam, dubbed Brussels’ plan “just another reshuffle of old ideas that do not work”. 

“It is a waste of time,” she said.

The plan would see a closer coordination between EU national authorities and humanitarian NGOs on rescues of migrants whose make-shift, overcrowded boats are in difficulty.

And it would see Brussels work more closely with Tunisia, Libya and Egypt to try to stop undocumented migrants boarding smuggler vessels in the first place.

READ ALSO: Italy arrests suspected trafficker over deaths of seven migrants

France would like a new framework within which NGO boats could operate – neither a total ban nor a carte blanche to import would-be refugees.

Italy, Greece, Malta and Cyprus often accuse the humanitarian charities of operating without respect to national authorities and of effectively encouraging immigration.

Migrants on a boat arriving in Italy

Italy, Greece, Malta and Cyprus often accuse NGOs of operating with disregard to national authorities. Photo by Gianluca CHININEA / AFP

Other member states, including Germany, argue that there can be no limits on humanitarian operations – all seafarers are obliged by the law of the sea to save travellers in danger. 

Ahead of the talks, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, warned: “With almost 2,000 people having already died or gone missing so far this year alone, urgent action is needed.”

Grandi welcomed the European Commission’s draft plan for state-led rescues and predictable ports of disembarkation, adding: “While states point fingers and trade blame, lives are lost.”

Border force

While France and Italy argue about high-profile cases of dramatic rescues in the central Mediterranean, other EU capitals are more concerned about land routes through the Balkans.

Almost 130,000 undocumented migrants are estimated to have come to the bloc since the start of the year, an increase of 160 percent, according to the EU border force Frontex.

On Thursday, the Czech, Austrian, Slovak and Hungarian ministers met in Prague ahead of the trip to Brussels to stress that this route accounts for more than half of “illegal arrivals” in the bloc.

Austrian interior minister Gerhard Karner said the EU should finance border protection and give members “a legal tool to return people who come for economic reasons”.

Diplomats said France and Italy would try to dominate the talks with complaints about sea arrivals, while Greece and Cyprus would point fingers at Turkey for allegedly facilitating illegal entries.

Central and eastern countries would focus on the Balkans route and, as one diplomat said, “Hungary and Poland don’t want anything to do with anything in the field of migration.”