Government in Italy

President, parliament, political parties and elections

Government in Italy

Italy was a monarchy from its unification in the second half of the 19th century until 1946, when it became a parliamentary republic following a national referendum.

On 1st January 1948, it adopted a constitutional charter, which defines the political and civil liberties of citizens and the principles of government. Italy is headed by a President who appoints a Prime Minister, the elected head of government.

The seat of government is Rome, where the President resides in the Palazzo del Quirinale, the chamber of deputies sits in the Palazzo Montecitorio and the senate occupies the Palazzo Madama.


The head of state is the President of the republic, who (at least in theory) represents the nation’s unity and ensures compliance with the constitution (under the direction of the constitutional court).

He is elected every seven years by a college comprising both chambers of parliament and three representatives from each region. The minimum age for presidential candidates is 50. The current President, Giorgio Napolitano, took office in 2006.

The President’s duties include appointing the Prime Minister, promulgating laws and decrees, authorising the presentation of government bills in parliament and, with parliamentary authorisation, ratifying treaties and declaring war. He may dissolve parliament (except during the last six months of his term of office), either on his own initiative in consultation with the presidents of both chambers or at the request of the government, and he has the power to call special sessions of parliament and delay legislation.

Some of these acts must be ratified by the government.

The President commands the armed forces and presides over the Supreme Council of Defence and the Superior Council of Magistrates. Whenever a government is defeated or resigns, it’s his duty (after consulting eminent politicians and party leaders) to appoint the person most likely to win the confidence of parliament, although the candidate is usually designated by the majority parties and the President has limited choice.


The Italian parliament ( parlamento) is bicameral, consisting of two chambers or assemblies: the Senate of the Republic ( Senato della Repubblica) with 315 members (called senators) and the Chamber of Deputies ( Camera dei Deputati) with 630 members (deputies). The assemblies enjoy equal power and are both elected by universal suffrage.

Senators represent Italy’s 20 regions whereas deputies come from 26 constituencies, but the most important difference between the chambers is the minimum age required for the electorate and the candidates: 18 and 25 respectively for deputies and 25 and 40 for senators. Parliament is elected every five years, although few Italian governments run their course, the average length of office being less than a year.

The senators and deputies must declare to which parliamentary group they intend to belong, and any political group consisting of at least 10 senators and 20 deputies has the right to be represented in parliament.

The government is appointed by the President and is led by the president of the council of ministers ( il Presidente del Consiglio), more commonly referred to as the Prime Minister. Although the government carries out the executive functions of the state, in emergencies it also has powers to approve laws by decree. Parliament can be dissolved by the President, e.g. when the Prime Minister loses a vote of no confidence.

Ministerial appointments are negotiated by the parties constituting the government majority and each new government must receive a vote of confidence in both houses of parliament within ten days of its appointment. If at any time the government fails to maintain the confidence of either house, it must resign. Splits in the coalition of two or more parties that have united to form a government have caused most resignations in the past.

The most important function of parliament is ordinary legislation. Bills may be presented in parliament by the government, by individual members, or by bodies such as the National Council for Economy and Labour, various regional councils, or communes, as well as by petition of 50,000 citizens of the electorate or through a referendum.

Bills must be approved by both houses before they become law; thus, whenever one house introduces an amendment to a draft approved by the other house, the latter must approve the amended draft. The law comes into force when published in the Gazzetta Ufficiale.

Political Parties

From the end of the Second World War to the early ’90s, Italy had a multi-party system dominated by two parties, the Christian Democratic Party (Partito della Democrazia Cristiana/DC) and the Italian Communist Party (Partito Comunista Italiano/PCI), with a number of other small but influential parties, ranging from the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement (Movimento Sociale Italiano/MSI) on the right to the Italian Socialist Party (Partito Socialista Italiano/PSI) on the left, while a number of small secular parties occupied the centre.

The DC was the dominant governing party in various alliances with smaller parties of the centre and left, and the principal opposition parties were the PCI and the MSI.

The Italian party system underwent a radical transformation in the early ’90s as a result of both international and national events. The party system was radically altered by the fall of communism, by a wave of judicial prosecutions of corrupt officials that involved most Italian political parties, and by the fact that in 1991 the Communist Party became the Democratic Party of the Left (Partito Democratico della Sinistra/PDS).

The DC, battered by scandal, was replaced by a much smaller organisation, the Italian Popular Party (Partito Popolare Italiano/PPI), which itself virtually disappeared after elections in 1994. Meanwhile, three new parties arose and began to dominate the political right: Forza Italia (FI), a vaguely neo-liberal alliance created in 1994 by the media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi; the Northern League (Lega Nord/LN), formed in 1991, a federalist and fiscal-reform movement with large support in the northern regions; and the National Alliance (Alleanza Nazionale/AN), which succeeded the MSI in 1994, but whose political platform renounced its fascist past.

Thus, the Italian political spectrum, which had previously been dominated by parties of the centre, became polarised between parties of the right and left.

Regional Government

For administrative purposes, the country is divided into 20 regions, which roughly correspond to the historical regions of the country. The regions are further divided into 110 provinces ( provinci province, three of which will come into being in 2009), which are further subdivided into town councils or communes ( comuni). The five ‘special status’ regions ( regioni a statuo speciale) of Friuli-Venezia-Giuila, Sardinia, Sicily, Trentino-Alto Adige and Val d’Aosta are autonomous or semi-autonomous due to particular ethnic or geographical considerations.

They have special powers granted under the constitution and regional assemblies (similar to parliaments) with a wide range of administrative and economic powers. Italy’s other 15 regions have little autonomy compared with, for example, those in Germany or Spain.

Participation in national government is a principal function of the regions and regional councils may initiate parliamentary legislation, propose referenda, and appoint three delegates to assist in presidential elections. With regard to regional legislation, the five ‘special’ regions have exclusive authority in certain fields such as agriculture, forestry and town planning, while the other regions have authority within the limits of principles established by state laws.

The legislative powers of the regions are subject to certain constitutional limitations, the most important of which is that regional acts may not conflict with national interests. The regions can also enact legislation necessary for the enforcement of state laws and have the right to acquire property and to collect certain revenues and taxes. Regional and local elections are held every five years.


The organs of the commune ( comune), the smallest local government unit, are the popularly elected communal council, the communal committee or executive body and the mayor ( sindaco). The communes have the power to levy and collect local taxes and have their own police ( vigili urbani), although their powers are much less than those exercised by the national police.

The communes issue ordinances and run certain public health services, and are responsible for such services as public transport, refuse collection and street lighting. Regions have some control over the activity of the communes and communal councils may be dissolved for reasons of public order or for continued neglect of their duties.

The mayor of a commune, in his capacity as an agent of the central government, registers births, deaths, marriages, and migrations, maintains public order (although in practice this is dealt with by the national police), and can, in an emergency, issue ordinances concerning public health, town planning and the local police. An EU national is entitled to vote in communal elections and stand as a candidate.


All citizens aged 18 and over may vote in elections for the Chamber of Deputies; the age limit is 25 for the Senate. The turnout for elections in Italy is the highest in the EU in all elections, reaching well over 80 per cent of the electorate for parliamentary elections. For almost half a century after the Second World War, Italy’s electoral system was based on proportional representation, a system in which seats in an elected body are awarded to political parties according to the proportion of the total vote they receive.

Between 1993 and 1995, however, several changes were made by national legislation and popular referenda. At national level, the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate are now elected by a combination of proportionality and plurality. Seventy-five per cent of the seats in these two chambers are filled from single-member districts by individual candidates who win the largest number of votes in each district. The other 25 per cent of the seats are awarded to candidates from party lists on a proportional basis. The number of votes obtained by the winner in single-member districts is fully (for senators) or partially (for deputies) subtracted before allocating proportional seats, thus introducing a further element of proportionality.

In regional elections, voters cast two ballots. The first is cast in a contest for 80 per cent of the seats in the regional council, which are awarded on a proportional basis. The second ballot is a plurality vote; the regional coalition that wins a plurality is awarded all the remaining seats as well as the presidency of the regional government. Split voting is allowed.

In provincial elections, only one vote is cast. If a single provincial list wins more than 50 per cent of the votes, seats are divided among all the lists according to their proportion of the vote, and the presidency goes to the head of the winning list.

Otherwise, a run-off election must take place between the two most successful lists, the winner taking 60 per cent of the seats. A similar system is employed in municipal elections in cities with more than 15,000 inhabitants. In this case, however, two ballots are cast, one for the mayor and one for the council. Split voting is permitted. In smaller cities, only one ballot is cast and the winning list is awarded two-thirds of the seats as well as the mayoralty.


An important feature of the Italian constitution is that referenda must be held – in order to repeal laws or executive orders (except with regard to anything concerning the state budget or the ratification of international treaties) – at the request of 500,000 signatories or five regional councils. Referenda have been called extensively since the ’70s and have resulted a wide range of institutional and civic reforms.

Important referenda held in the past include those on abortion, divorce, nuclear power and electoral reform. Some regions also have a provision for holding referenda. The constitution also provides that 50,000 members of the electorate may jointly present to parliament a draft bill.

European Parliamentary Elections

EU nationals over 18 who are resident in Italy are permitted to vote in European elections for Members of the European Parliament (MEPs). If you wish to exercise your right to vote, you must request an application from the mayor of the municipality in which you’re resident not less than 90 days before polling day.

You may be required to show your identity documents and give your last address in your home EU country in order to verify that you’re an EU citizen. As far as elections to the European Parliament are concerned, you lose the right to vote in your EU country of origin if you choose to vote in Italy.

This article is an extract from Living and Working in Italy. Click here to get a copy now.

Further reading

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