By Yiğit Saner, reporting from Rome / Italy
Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy), the party of Italian premier Giorgia Meloni, and the other coalition forces forming the government, Forza Italia and Lega (League), had put a sort of “presidential system” on the agenda in their 2022 electoral program to solve the problem of instability of the country’s governments and to ensure that the head of the executive is directly elected by the people: “I don’t care if something is difficult, the question we have to ask ourselves is if it is worth it and it is certain that it is worth it. In 75 years of republican life we have had 68 governments with an average duration of 14 months. We need stability to give citizens breathing space,” said the Minister of Institutional Reforms, Maria Elisabetta Alberti Castellati of Forza Italia.
And now, the Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, after seven months in government, has brought up the “presidential” reform aimed at radical changes to the Italian Constitution. The declared objective is to guarantee greater institutional stability and a decisive democracy: “Reform in the presidential sense, or the direct election of the top executive’ can be, as well as ‘out of respect for the popular will’, an element of ‘stability’ and, therefore, one of the most powerful development measures that we can imagine for this nation. […] A long-term industrial policy cannot be accompanied by governments that last a few months.”
Institutional reforms in the Italian political environment have been discussed for years now, but every concrete attempt to implement them has failed: most recently the constitutional referendum that would have changed the powers of the Senate, among other things, proposed by Matteo Renzi’s government in 2016.
And the last proposal for a constitutional revision in a presidential direction was instead made by the right parties in 2018, but without success.
That is why Meloni must reach the broadest possible political consensus to introduce a presidential system, or at least to ensure that the chief executive is directly elected by the people. “I hope for broad sharing, which goes beyond the majority but not at the cost of failing in the commitment made with the citizens,” she said.
However, the Prime Minister did not fail to remind the opposition of the powers that she holds: “I got the mandate from the Italians and I keep faith with that mandate. I’m not interested in imagining a single man in charge, but I say enough to governments built in the laboratory, inside the Palace. Those who govern must be linked to popular consensus.”
We can translate these sentences as follows: if the opposition agrees, it is perfect, if not, we go ahead alone.
And so Meloni, before dealing with the opposition, put three main framework scenarios on the table:
The presidential system, or rather presidentialism in the strict sense with direct election of the President of the Republic, who is also the head of the government.
Semi-presidentialism on the French model, therefore direct election of the President of the Republic who appoints a head of government.
The direct election of the Prime Minister, which in this case the Parliament retains the power to elect the President of the Republic, who maintains his role of super partes personality and counterweight.
Dead end street: Presidentialism
Elly Schlein, the new head of the Partito Democratico (Democratic Party) – or rather the opposition party with the highest representation in Parliament – had proved unfavorable on the reforms and had said that it is not a “moment for real confrontation, but just the umpteenth operation to divert attention from other issues, on which the government has made wicked choices, from work to immigration.”
Schlein, as expected, took the same line after the meeting with the Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni on institutional reforms: “We will examine the proposals on their merits, without prejudice. We will look carefully at what goes in the direction of improving representation and stability, however we do not lend ourselves to weakening the checks and balances and we do not touch the institution of the President of the Republic, a guarantee of stability even in the most difficult moments. In no way are we to downsize the figure of the President of the Republic in favor of a single man or woman in command. […] We say no to the direct election of the President of the Republic and also to the Premiership, the so-called Mayor of Italy, because they would weaken the Parliament. […] We stress that for us this discussion on reforms is not a priority for the country, the priorities are work, healthcare, National Recovery and Resilience Plan, climate, youth, home.”
Mario Conte, the leader of the Movimento 5 Stelle (Five Star Movement), said as he left the meeting with the Prime Minister Meloni: “We are available as regards the method of dialogue in an ad hoc parliamentary commission, we recommend this path, aware that the problem of government instability needs to be resolved, but a shared solution did not emerge in this meeting. The picture must remain balanced, that is, it must not demean the parliamentary role in mediation, nor the function of the President of the Republic. We therefore told Meloni that coups in the redefinition of the constitutional structure are not recommended, we await updates from the government.”
The Italia Viva (Italy Alive) is in favor of the direct election of the Prime Minister: the leader of the party Matteo Renzi has long imagined the Prime Minister as the Mayor of Italy, or rather a system of direct election with two rounds and the overcoming of bicameralism (Senate and Parliament).
In fact Maria Elena Boschi, the deputy of Italia Viva, confirmed the positions of her party at the end of the meeting with the Premier Giorgia Meloni: “For us there are two fundamental issues. The first is the direct election of the Premier on the model of the Mayor of Italy. […] A reform of the form of government cannot be separated from the overcoming of bicameralism.”
Carlo Calenda, the head of the Azione (Action), like many others underlines the “untouchability” of the President of the Republic but in any case proved to be in favor of the reforms: “We share the need for greater government stability, the need for greater efficiency of the overall state apparatus. […] For us there is an absolute red line, which is the figure that guarantees unity and of the Constitution, who is the President of the Republic. […] The President of the Republic, in a country divided on everything, is the only institution that truly guarantees unity, in our opinion, touching it and politicizing it would be a very serious mistake.”
In addition, it should be noted that all the opposition forces, from M5s to PD passing through the Più Europa (More Europe), are willing to think about a German-style premiership, or rather without direct elections but attributing more powers to the Prime Minister.
The Meaning of the Premiership
Giorgia Meloni and her party, Fratelli d’Italia, can be convinced of the need for a President of the Republic elected by the people “to give stability and continuity to the politics and will of the people of this nation” however, both the opposition and part of the majority have shown themselves immovable in keeping the key functions of the President of the Republic intact, as guarantor of national cohesion and of the Constitution. In fact, Forza Italia, the other majority party, seems more cautious and focuses on the premiership rather than presidentialism, that is a Prime Minister elected directly by the people and not, as he is now, appointed by the President of the Republic after consultations with the groups parliamentarians (in view of the Parliament’s confidence) and with greater powers than the current ones, so that, for example, a vote of no confidence could not suffice to put the executive in crisis. Deputy Prime Minister Antonio Tajani of Forza Italia purposely said: “I believe that for Italy the premiership could be a more welcome solution for the majority of forces in Parliament.” That said, “the best recipe must be found together, majority and opposition.”
Even the Lega (League) is wary of the direct election of the Head of State: “Any of the two hypotheses is fine for us, we take them both into consideration. […] They’re fine but only with checks and balances.” said Massimilano Romeo, the leader of the Lega in the Senate.
As we can read on the pages of Linkiesta, “Presidentialism, the real one, dreamed of by Meloni (direct election of the President of the Republic), like all fairy tales, in a cloud of steam, was all fantasy. And she knows it. In fact, the right now calls the direct election of the Prime Minister “presidentialism”, knowing that this is a different and more practicable terrain, said that not even the whole right would have been behind true presidentialism, for fear of giving too much power to ‘Giorgia’.”
Whether it’s presidentialism, premiership or an Italian solution, it seems that “Giorgia Meloni taking advantage of her momentary popularity”. She will want to carry forward the Constitutional reforms declared in the 2022 electoral program. And even if in recent days some political analysts have hypothesized that this great activism regarding reforms could be a sort of Government bluff, a way to divert attention from the difficulties regarding National Recovery and Resilience Plan, foreign policy and migrants , Deputy premier Tajani said that in any case they will go ahead: “Enough with unelected governments. Reforms are part of our agenda. If the opposition chooses to make it hard, we will go ahead alone. Then there will be the referendums and the citizens will decide.”
At that point, the referendum would risk turning into a vote for or against Giorgia Meloni, with the concrete risk for the Prime Minister of running into a rejection that could irreparably tarnish her aura: “Beyond the dialectical nuances, the majority finds itself at a crossroads: there are those who aim for the blitz, the approval of a text by majority blows, and those who would like to reach a broad agreement, seeing clearly the possible political risks of a confrontation on the constitutional changes. They fear that a defeat in the referendum could represent a rock against which the government and the majority could crash.
The referendum would take place if a two-thirds majority is not obtained in the second of the votes in each House. A majority, which, moreover, on balance, is rather complicated to achieve and stands at 267 deputies and 137 senators (senators for life must also be included in the calculation). Currently in Palazzo Madama, the majority lacks 21 votes to reach that threshold.”
The road to pursue
And now, after all these discussions in May on reforms, Giorgia Meloni will prepare her precise proposal: “Two essential objectives: the stability of governments and legislatures and respect for citizens’ votes in the polls. On these objectives we have started discussions with the opposition forces to understand if there is convergence on the objectives and understand among the many possible systems on which one can converge. We have not proposed a pre-packaged solution.[…] Now we try to work out our own proposal. We are imagining an Italian model. […] We have problems of instability that have no equal in the other major Western democracies.”
And the Government will try to clarify how the power relationship between the Prime Minister and the Parliament will change? Will he be able to untie the Chambers? Will he be allowed to override legislative functions? What about bicameralism? And what will be the role of the President of the Republic? These are just some of the questions that government forces have so far avoided answering.