How could Italy’s new government change the constitution?

Having emerged as the largest party in parliament following the general election, the far-right Brothers of Italy now wants to reform the constitution. How might it go about doing so - and why?

The centrodestra coalition with (From L) Lega leader Matteo Salvini, Forza Italia leader Silvio Berlusconi and Brothers of Italy leader Giorgia Meloni is set to form Italy's next government.
The centrodestra coalition with (From L) Lega leader Matteo Salvini, Forza Italia leader Silvio Berlusconi and Brothers of Italy leader Giorgia Meloni is set to form Italy's next government. Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP.

With the official results now in, Italy’s elections have produced a clear winner.

The hard-right coalition, led by the post-fascist Brothers of Italy in partnership with the populist League and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, swept to victory with 44 percent of the vote, giving them a majority in both houses of parliament.

EXPLAINED: What’s behind election success for Italy’s far right?

They’ll now begin the process of forming a government, and talk is turning to their likely priorities once in power.

The group’s programme includes a number of policies that are typical of right-wing parties, including tightening immigration controls, cracking down on crime, reforming Italy’s welfare system, and lowering taxes.

One of their more left-field proposals, however, is a constitutional reform that would transform Italy’s political system from that of a parliamentary democracy to a French-style semi-presidential system through “direct elections of the President of the Republic”.

Presidential system

Though it came close, the coalition didn’t win the crucial supermajority of two thirds of the seats in both the senate and the lower house that would have allowed it to reform the constitution without encountering any obstacles.

But the new government could hold a referendum on the issue, handing the decision over to voters. It was through this mechanism that Italians voted in 2020 to reduce their total number of parliamentarians by one third.

EXPLAINED: What will a far-right government mean for Italy?

Meloni has been long been a proponent of overhauling Italy’s political system, and was the lead signatory to a similar proposal put before parliament by Brothers of Italy in 2018.

In the introduction to the document, its authors say that a switch to a presidential system “is not a new invention, but is a historic proposal from Brothers of Italy and the Italian right” that would make it easier for governments to enact the wishes of voters.

The proposal calls for Italy’s head of state “to be directly elected by the Italian people and thus legitimised to assume all responsibility for the nation’s political direction and the most important national and international policy choices.”

READ ALSO: How victory for Italy’s far right could impact lives of foreign residents

Leader of Italy's liberal-conservative party Forza Italia, Silvio Berlusconi, leader of Italy's conservative party Brothers of Italy, Giorgia Meloni and leader of Italy's far-right League party, Matteo Salvini acknowledge supporters at the end of a joint rally against the government on October 19, 2019 in Rome.

Italy’s right-wing coalition, consisting of Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, Salvini’s League and Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, wants to switch to a French-style presidential political system. Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP

Italy’s current parliamentary system, specifically designed to thwart the rise of would-be dictators after two decades of fascist rule, makes it almost impossible for any one party to win a majority.

This safeguard against dictatorships means parties are required to enter into often uneasy alliances to form coalition governments that could collapse at any time – which is why Italy has had as many as three governments since the last elections in 2018 and seven in the past decade.

In essence, switching to presidenzialismo, or a presidential system, would give more power to the executive and make it far more difficult to get rid of the elected head of state during their five-year term – which, while a long way from ushering in an autocracy, might make some a little nervous given Brothers of Italy’s neofascist origins.

READ ALSO: The five biggest challenges facing Italy’s new hard-right government

EU reform

Besides overhauling the political system, it’s also possible that a Eurosceptic Meloni-led government could propose further constitutional reforms to reconfigure Italy’s relationship with the EU.

As Francesco Cancellato has written for the news site Fanpage, Meloni said in 2018 that she would like to rewrite articles of the constitution that require Italy to adhere to the EU’s rules on budget balancing and abide by EU law.

Unlike the proposed shift to presidentialism, this wasn’t in the coalition’s 2022 election manifesto, and commentators have pointed out that Meloni currently has a strong vested interest in maintaining good relations with Brussels.

TIMELINE: What happens next after Italy’s historic elections?

But it has raised fears that Meloni could take steps in the future to assert Italian sovereignty and weaken the EU – along with the rights the bloc has secured for minority groups.

First, though, Meloni has the challenge of forming a new government with her coalition partners, who are already proving difficult allies – a process which could take months.

Once the new government is in place, it will be subject to the same fragilities that all of Italy’s previous post-war administrations have faced. Whether it will last long enough to attempt any of these reforms remains an open question.

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EXPLAINED: Why people in Italy might have to carry more cash from now on

Under Italy’s new budget law, retailers will no longer be fined for refusing card payments on amounts lower than €30 – a controversial move that is expected to have a knock-on effect for shoppers.

EXPLAINED: Why people in Italy might have to carry more cash from now on

Italy’s new budget bill, whose full text was made available to the media on Wednesday, is set to add yet another controversial chapter to the country’s long and troubled history of card payment laws.

According to a clause included in the 2023 budget law, fines for retailers refusing card payments on amounts lower than €30 will now be suspended until at least June 2023.

As set out by the bill, the six-month suspension will allow the newly created Ministry of Enterprises and Made in Italy to “establish new exemption criteria” and “guarantee the proportionality of the given penalties”. 

READ ALSO: Key points: What Italy’s new budget law means for you 

And, though it isn’t yet clear what new exemptions the government is currently considering nor what exactly is meant by “proportionality”, what’s certain is that residents will now have to repopulate their pockets with some good old banknotes because businesses – from taxi drivers to cafes and bars might not accept card payments for small amounts.

Fines for businesses caught refusing card payments had been introduced by Draghi’s administration back in June 2022, with retailers liable to pay “a €30 administrative fee plus four percent of the value of the transaction previously denied”, regardless of the amount owed by the customer. 

Euro banknotes in a wallet

Under Italy’s new budget law, retailers will no longer be forced to accept card payments for transactions under €30. Photo by Ina FASSBENDER / AFP

But, the measure had quickly sparked outrage among retailers, who lamented having to pay hefty bank commissions on every electronic transaction – some business owners even went as far as openly defying the law and organised themselves into a No-Pos Committee (Comitato No Pos). 

Given the latest developments, it seems like their efforts might just have paid off. 

But, while many business owners will surely be happy with the suspension, others across the country have already raised doubt about the potential ripple effects of the government’s move.

Aside from shoppers having to begrudgingly carry more cash than they’re currently used to, many political commentators are warning that the suspension might be a “gift to tax dodgers” in a country where, according to the latest available estimates, tax evasion costs state coffers nearly €90 billion a year.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: What’s changing under Italy’s post-pandemic recovery plan? 

It’s also worth noting that the introduction of fines for businesses refusing card payments was one of the financial objectives set out within Italy’s Recovery Plan (PNRR), which expressly refers to the fight against tax evasion as one of the country’s most urgent priorities. 

It is then likely that the new cabinet will at some point have to answer for the latest U-turn on Recovery Plan policies in front of the EU Commission.