Institutional and political context
A month ago, Giorgia Meloni celebrated her first hundred days as head of the Italian government, leading the right-wing coalition of its three main parties (Fratelli d’Italia, Forza Italia, Lega). In the aftermath of her victory, many commentators, both local and international, claimed that the result represented a panic for the European political balance. Even the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, went so far as to interfere in the debate, expressing herself almost in a threatening tone. This crisis of disorder and broken international alliances has clearly not happened. Or not yet.
On the contrary, Meloni seems to be cautiously controlling the beginning of the mandate that the Italian people have indirectly given her. Indirectly because Italy has, as we know, a parliamentary and perfectly bicameral system. The head of government embodying the parliamentary majority takes office after being appointed by the President of the Republic, who plays a mainly symbolic role, but not only.
But then, why does the new President of the Council want to change the regime?
According to her, it is partly responsible for the political instability the country has been experiencing for many years and it is quite difficult not to agree with her. When Meloni was sworn into office last 22 October, she became the head of the 68th Italian government since 1946. An average sadly known to Italians of one government every 14 months, embodying the image of an almost inevitable political instability. In this context – where the reference majority obviously changes very often – it is easy to understand that the various executives find it difficult to adopt any kind of long-term vision, affecting de facto the social, economic, and political strategy of the country.
Italy is consequently affected, with the risk that politicians may govern to satisfy the people for electoral purposes, rather than for their concrete future. In fact, Meloni used these figures during her campaign, which became a kind of slogan to alert the public to the need for change. She reminded citizens that over the last twenty years, Italy has had 12 heads of government, with an economic growth rate of around 4%. Over the same period, France, the United Kingdom, and Germany have had the same number of governments together, with a growth rate exceeding 20%. According to her, it is therefore clear that the factor of political instability is linked to economic instability. It is obviously too easy to think that this simple analogy is enough to explain the Italian economic backwardness, but it certainly did not contribute to a favorable dynamic.
Moreover, this major proposal does not come out of nowhere since the issue has already been raised several times in the country’s recent political history. The former head of government, Silvio Berlusconi, for example, had mentioned it on several occasions (cf. 1995; 2001, etc.). The only difference today is that Presidentialism has never been so close to being established in the world’s eighth largest power.
And what about French semi-presidentialism in all that story?
One could compare this Italian political instability with the Third and Fourth French Republics – where governments also ended shortly after starting, with time averages of the same order. In the rhetoric of the Italian right, we can find certain arguments that were used by General de Gaulle. At the time, he expressed his anger against “the messiness of the party system” which he described as “out of order to ensure the conduct of affairs”. It was 1958, and a few weeks later, the French approved by referendum a new Constitution that would completely change the political organization of their country.
By giving the President of the Republic – now single leader of the executive – a far greater weight, he became the keystone of the institutions. This dynamic was achieved in 1962 with his election by direct universal suffrage by the French people every seven years. The results were quite convincing if we rely on history, which brought a certain political stability to France. Even if the context and the time are quite different, the Roman leader firmly believes – by imitating this historical example – that this reform is good for her country. She certainly forgets to consider the Italian political culture, which has its own singularity. But no matter, as a symbol, she has promised to make this key point of her program one of the main tasks of this legislature.
Consequences on the Constitution and Italian political life
For Mrs. Meloni, providing a new presidential form of government would therefore be a strategy that would allow the country to become politically stable again, leaving more time for the elected President and his majority to implement his action plan and reforms. This idea is coupled with a strong argument to give back confidence to the citizens through the vote that would be given to them. In order to pass this reform – disruptive in every respect – she will inevitably need to modify the supreme law of the state. Indeed, a constitutional amendment is necessary for such a radical paradigm shift, and this is perhaps where things will get complicated. It involves not only a change in the mode of election and the power of the executive, but it is also a break with the essential role of protector of the Constitution that the President has played until now (cf. Art. 90, 91). For many, the Italian supreme law is considered sacred, holding thereby an almost untouchable character. Since the end of fascism, it has served as the watchdog of the institutions, ensuring their complete independence, and affirming the fundamental principles inseparable from the Republic. The 1946 text is therefore partly intended to protect Italians from any authoritarian drift.
The current opposition – absolutely against the introduction of presidentialism in the country – also bases many of its arguments on these fundamental principles. Enrico Letta, for example, stressed during the election period that there was a great danger in changing the Constitution and that stability would not come by magic with presidentialism. Paradoxically, his political party – i.e., Partito Democratico (PD) – has already carried out, in recent history, several initiatives for constitutional reforms – although these did not concern such radical aspects (see April and November 2016). It is therefore quite understandable that the left-wing political side fears for the respect of the Constitution and the omnipotence of the President if he is directly elected by the people. This criticism is also strongly present in the French model, from which Meloni wants to draw inspiration, where the reproaches of a “President King who is too powerful” are legion. France has long been used to this debate, in which the excessive power of the executive is blamed on a powerless opposition that has difficulty in making itself heard. This year, the cards have been slightly redistributed with the relative majority obtained by Emmanuel Macron, forming a better representative National Assembly. However, the President’s excessive powers are still being challenged. And the news confirms it: with the burning week of the pension reform, it is (very) likely that the executive will pass the law by force, via the so-called
commitment of responsibility (see Article 49.3). Many commentators will cry democratic scandal and the government will lose a little more legitimacy, even though this process is totally allowed by the Constitution – and already used more than a hundred times in the history of the Fifth Republic. Democracy, as imperfect as it is, cannot satisfy everyone. The result will be that, despite all this uproar, the law should pass, and President Macron will have kept one of the promises he made to his voters.
Italians will soon have their fate in their hands with a major shift in the future of the country’s political life. It is hard to know whether this is a risk worth taking, but it is certain that Italy suffers from changing its government and its leader far too often. How can you be credible in the international context and the order of Nations when your main interlocutor does not stay in office for more than a year on average? By presenting the question of changing a fundamental aspect of the Constitution to its people, the citizens will have to make – without doubt – the most crucial choice they have ever had to express themselves on.
It is difficult to be sure of the immediate effects of this reform if it is adopted, whether positive or negative. It is also difficult to predict the outcome of the potential referendum and whether the country will be ready to say yes. The only thing that can be said is that the way in which Meloni and his government will organize this new political system will be decisive. But it will also depend on many other factors, including the way it is received by the political class. Soon, consultations are expected to take place to maybe initiate the greatest constitutional reform the country has ever seen. Meloni and his coalition have already invited all parties to participate in these exceptional discussions. The reaction of the opposition will be particularly interesting to observe, especially with the very recent election of the PD’s new leader – Elly Schlein – on whom rest the hopes of many citizens. Will she suggest other solutions to this complex instability problematic? Answers in a few weeks, or months.
Thibault de La Palme