EXPLAINED: How are Italy’s prime ministers chosen?

Following the resignation of Giuseppe Conte last week, Italy may soon have a new prime minister. But he wasn’t elected by voters, he has no political party, and he's not even a politician. Here's what's going on.

EXPLAINED: How are Italy's prime ministers chosen?
The Quirinale Presidential Palace in central Rome. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

In the whirlwind of Italian politics, prime ministers come and go with dizzying frequency – on average about once every 14 months over the last 75 years.

And the process by which they are chosen can seem more than a little confusing – particularly for non-Italians, who may be used to quite different political systems.

Mario Draghi, an economist and the former president of the European Central Bank, was tasked on Wednesday with forming a government after weeks of squabbling within Italy's ruling parties.

But this doesn’t mean he’s got the top job just yet.

PROFILE: Could 'Super Mario' Draghi lead Italy out of its crisis?

Under Italy’s rules, the prime minister is appointed by the president of the Republic, and must then win the confidence of parliament to stay in office.

The job itself is formally called President of the Council of Ministers (Presidente del Consiglio dei Ministri), rather than Prime Minister.

The president usually makes this appointment after a general election, but it can also happen after a government collapses – which is not an unusual occurrence in Italian politics.

This time, President Mattarella asked Draghi to take over and form a government after Conte resigned amid a political crisis, and talks between ruling parties on forming a new government between themselves ended in failure.

After that, Mattarella had two options left: appointing a new prime minister himself, or call snap elections.

However he has effectively ruled out the possibility of elections due to the pandemic.

So is Draghi the new prime minister or not?

Draghi will not be formally nominated as prime minister until he can secure a majority in parliament – and until then, Conte's government remains in a caretaker position.

Draghi is on Thursday meeting with party leaders to discuss forming a new government.

Mario Draghi  gives a press conference after at the Quirinal palace in Rome on Wenesday. Photo: AFP

“The immediate challenge for Draghi, who is no political novice, is to secure a majority in a parliament where there is a deep unease towards 'technocratic solutions',” noted Wolfango Piccoli of political consultancy Teneo.

“At present, it is far from clear if a majority in parliament would be willing to support Draghi as prime minister.”

READ ALSO: An introductory guide to the Italian political system

Draghi, like Conte, is not a politician and does not have a political party behind him.

But this is nothing new in Italy, where the job has not always been left to politicians.

Italy’s multi-party system, featuring a large number of smaller parties, means governments are often in coalition form.

These may consist of several parties of various sizes, often with opposing views and conflicting political agendas.

This means that even the initial tasks of agreeing to form a government and naming cabinet ministers can be a long, drawn-out affair rife with squabbling.

Choosing a prime minister, then, is often a particular bone of contention between parties.

Conte himself was an outsider chosen as a compromise candidate when two opposing parties – the Five Star Movement and the League – formed an uneasy and short-lived coalition government in 2018.

Giuseppe Conte in 2018, flanked by two deputy prime ministers, Matteo Salvini and Luigi Di Maio, under the previous coalition government. Photo: AFP

An unknown law professor not affiliated with any party, Conte went on to head a second coalition government, and his profile rose at home and abroad due to his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

But he was far from the first non-politician to lead an Itaian government.

Since the 1990s, it has become established practice to call on unelected outsiders at times of national crisis – so-called technocrats with particular expertise.

“Every 10 to 15 years we inevitably end up in the hands of technocrats,” said Lorenzo Castellani, a political scientist from Rome's Luiss University.

READ ALSO: Why do Italy's governments collapse so often?

Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, a former central banker like Draghi, was Italy's first technocratic premier in 1993, leading a cabinet of experts that also featured a few professional politicians.

At the time, the country was gripped by the “Clean Hands” nationwide corruption scandal, which was wiping out the political parties that had ruled since World War II.

Ciampi was eventually replaced by Silvio Berlusconi after the media mogul won his first general election in 1994.

National unity?

Draghi is however most often compared by media commentators to Mario Monti – the last person to form a “government of national unity”, as Draghi is now being asked to do, to see Italy through a major crisis.

Monti, an economics professor and former EU commissioner, led the most recent technocratic government, from late 2011 to mid-2013.

He had perhaps the hardest task of all, picking up the reins of government as Italy's near bankruptcy risked bringing down the entire eurozone.

Monti introduced painful austerity measures, and despite that, he was initially popular.

His ensuing political career was a failure, as the centrist party he founded to run in the 2013 general elections flopped.

Draghi's task is expected to be two-fold: drag Italy out of the coronavirus pandemic, and revive its battered economy with the help of EU money due under the Recovery Fund.

Unlike Monti, “instead of having to impose austerity policies… he will have a lot of money to hand out,” said Daniele Albertazzi, a reader in politics at the University of Birmingham.

Nevertheless, even if Draghi is currently seen as a “saviour”, the public mood could quickly turn against him, Albertazzi said, citing Monti's precedent.

“We go from putting people on a pedestal to wanting to throw stones at them in just a few months.”

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Italian elections: What’s the difference between a majority and ‘super majority’?

Italy's elections on Sunday are expected to produce a far-right government, but how big a majority will it have and what difference does this make? Here's what you need to know.

Italian elections: What's the difference between a majority and 'super majority'?

The right-wing alliance of parties led by Giorgia Meloni’s post-fascist Brothers of Italy is expected to win the September 25th general election by a landslide. 

In fact, the question many people have been asking for a while now is not whether the right will win, but by how much.

READ ALSO: Far-right Brothers of Italy eyes historic victory as Italy votes

The right-wing bloc, led by Meloni’s post-fascist Brothers of Italy and also including Matteo Salvini’s League and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, is expected to easily win a big enough share of the vote to take a majority of the seats in both houses of parliament and form a government.

But will they win a simple majority or a ‘super majority’? Here’s a quick guide to how the system works, what the difference is, and why it matters so much.

What’s a simple majority?

A government with a simple majority has the support of just over half of either the Senate or the Lower House – so at least 201 seats in the House and 101 in the Senate (not counting the six senators for life).

Getting a large enough share of the vote to ensure this is already quite an achievement in Italy, where the electoral system is set up to favour coalition governments precisely in order to stop any one party from ending up with too much power (it was, after all, designed after WW2 and the fall of Mussolini’s Fascist regime).

READ ALSO: Is Brothers of Italy a ‘far right’ party?

So under this system, the party that takes the largest share of the vote still needs help – a coalition partner, or several – to get a majority of seats in parliament and form a workable government. This usually requires major compromise and sees parties striking difficult bargains with others from across the political spectrum.

This time, the right-wing alliance looks more than likely to win by a landslide and take a majority between them – in which case it won’t need to seek outside support.

Some political analysts predict that Meloni and Salvini’s parties will win enough seats to form a government on their own, without involving Berlusoni’s more moderate party. They might choose to join forces anyway – but the more parties involved, the less stable a government is.

And, with a smaller number of parties involved, it would basically be easier for a government to pass the laws it wants to pass. (That is of course discounting the still enormous potential for bickering and power plays between even just a few coalition partners.)

So what’s a super majority?

Known more officially in Italy as a maggioranza speciale o qualificate (special or qualified majority) a ‘super majority’ is a two-thirds majority of the seats in both houses of parliament.

The prospect of Italy’s right-wing parties reaching this threshold has been hotly discussed in the media, since a government with such a large majority would be able to make changes to the political system itself, and therefore the constitution, without consulting voters via a referendum.

EXPLAINED: Who’s who in Italy’s general election?

A political force achieving a majority large enough to change the constitution would be unprecedented in Italy’s postwar history, and could bring major changes to the country’s political system – including to how the president is elected, or the powers the prime minister has.

and right-wing parties Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d'Italia, FdI), the League (Lega) and Forza Italia at Piazza del Popolo in Rome, ahead of the September 25 general election.

Forza Italia leader Silvio Berlusconi (centre), set to return to government with Matteo Salvini and Giorgia Meloni. Will they be forming a governmnt together after this election? Photo by Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP

All three leaders of the right-wing alliance have called for Italy to adopt a ‘French-style’ system which would mean the president is directly elected by voters,, instead of by lawmakers as is currently the case. This would mean changing the constitution.

Which scenario is likely?

If the most recent polls are to be believed, the right is on course to easily win a simple majority and possibly go on to reach the two-thirds threshold.

Talk of a super majority came about as the last polls (published two weeks before election day, when a polling blackout began) showed the right-wing alliance was just two or three percent away from achieving the share of the vote needed to give it a ‘super’ or qualified majority of the seats in both houses of parliament.

The right was polling 19 percent ahead of the centre-left bloc, and will need a lead of at least 21-22 percent to secure a qualified majority in both houses, according to projections by Youtrend/CattaneoZanetto & Co.

READ ALSO: An introductory guide to the Italian political system

A two-thirds majority is “possible” for the center-right “if the advantage in both chambers is around 21-22 percent,” Youtrend’s analysis explains.

Such a majority then becomes “probable” with “an advantage over the center-left of more than + 26 percent”, it says.

The winning alliance will need a majority in both houses of parliament, the Chamber of Deputies and Senate, and taking a majority in the Senate is forecast to be more of a challenge.

Recent reforms mean parliament has shrunk by a third: there will now be 400 MPs in the Chamber instead of up to 630, and 200 Senators instead of 315.

A view of the Italian Chamber of Deputies.

Following constitutional reform in 2020, the number of deputies will go from 630 to 400 in the upcoming elections. Photo by Yara NARDI / AFP

Italy has a fiendishly complicated hybrid voting system: about 36 percent of seats in both houses of parliament are allocated in a first-past-the-post vote in single-member constituencies, while the rest are elected by proportional representation via party lists of candidates.

If you want to see what this looks like, try out Sky TG24’s seggiometro, or ‘seatometer’, which allows you to visualise how different election results would translate to seats in parliament.

Is there any chance of a surprise result?

This definitely hasn’t been an election campaign that has kept us on the edge of our seats. The right-wing bloc led by Giorgia Meloni has been expected to win all along – but voter sentiment has apparently shifted somewhat in the two weeks since polling blackout began.

Since the publication of opinion polls ended, support for the left-leaning Five Star Movement appears to have surged while the hard-right League is flagging, according to pollsters interviewed by Reuters this week.

Most said the prediction that the right will take a majority in both houses of parliament and form the next government remains by far the most likely outcome, even if it has been thrown into doubt somewhat by Five Star’s rise.

With Italy’s famously unpredictable politics, and many voters expected to make their minds up only on the day itself, nothing can ever really be ruled out.