Italy’s history stretches back all the way to the Roman Empire. In Italy, expats will find a rich cultural heritage that is evident even in the tiniest rural towns. Italian is the official language, but other languages such as Slovenian, German and French are also considered national languages, and are spoken along the Slovenian border, in the region of Trento and in the Valle d’Aosta. Italians are proud of their rich cultural heritage and their language and expect visitors and expats to at least attempt to speak Italian.Italy came into existence on 17th March 1861. This was when King Victor Emmanuel II of Piedmont-Sardinia signed a law that became a bill in which he gave himself the title of ‘King of Italy’. He was therefore the first king of the unified Italy and held the title until he died in 1878. He was given the title of Father of the Fatherland.
The Italian unification, called Risorgimento, was a political and social movement that led to the unification of various states of the Italian peninsula into a unified Kingdom of Italy. During this time, only a minority of 2.5 percent of Italians spoke Italian. The language that is known as Italian today was among the many descendants of the ancient Latin language.
In 1948, following the distressing experience of Benito Mussolini’s fascism and after World War II, a new constitution was adopted in Italy. In the Italian parliament, the two Houses – the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate of the Republic – have the same rights and powers. This is a type of parliamentary democracy called bicameralism, according to which both houses perform identical functions. The main function of the Italian parliament is to formulate the laws of the country. A new government comes into power following a vote of confidence, and establishes the political guidelines to be followed by the Executive. The parliament holds the government accountable through questions and interrogations.
Both houses, in a joint sitting, oversee the election, inauguration and in certain cases, impeachment of the President of the Republic. They also oversee the election of some of the judges of the Constitutional Court and the Higher Judicial Council. The houses of parliament are elected every five years. The difference between the houses is the membership and regulations for the election of members.
The Italian electoral system has witnessed changes frequently in recent years and the current state of the system is complex and controversial. Scandal and corruption have plagued Italian politics, resulting in a chaotic political environment. Yet the economic system in Italy stayed robust until the political system’s weaknesses resulted in economical problems during the Eurozone crisis in 2011.
The monarchy in Italy was abolished in 1946 by way of a referendum. Under the constitution of 1948, the President of the Republic is considered the head of state. The President is elected via secret ballot for seven years, by a college consisting of both houses of parliament and three representatives of each region. Italy’s current president is Sergio Mattarella, who is a lawyer and judge, and the 12th President of Italy. He has served as Minister of Education and Minister of Defence, and in 2011, he was elected as a judge on the Constitutional Court. He was elected as the 12th President of the Italian Republic on 31st January 2015.
The duties of the President are as follows:
• Appointing the Prime Minister
• Declaring laws and decrees
• Authorizing the presentation of government bills
• Authorizing treaties
• Declaring war
Except during the last six months of the term of office, a President may dissolve parliament, either acting on his own initiative or at the request of the government. He also has the authority to call special parliament sessions and delay legislation. The President is the commander of the armed forces and chairs the Superior Council of Magistrates and the Supreme Council of Defense. In the event of the defeat or resignation of a government, it is the President’s duty to appoint the individual most likely to win the parliament’s confidence.
The parliament or parlamento in Italy is bicameral and is made up of two assemblies or chambers; the Chamber of Deputies (Camera dei Deputati) consisting of 630 members or deputies, and the Senate of the Republic (Senato della Repubblica) consisting of 315 members or senators. Both assemblies possess equal powers and are elected by universal suffrage. All of Italy’s 20 regions are presented by the senators, while the deputies hail from 26 constituencies. The main difference between the chambers is that 18 and 25 are the required ages for the electorate and the candidates, and 25 for senators. The parliament is elected every five years, but Italian governments usually do not run their course and the average duration of office is mostly less than a year.
Senators and deputies must state to which parliamentary group they wish to belong. Any political group with a minimum of 20 deputies and 10 senators has the right of representation in parliament.
The President appoints the government, and the head of the council of ministers (il Presidente del Consiglio), or the Prime Minister, leads the government. The government is entrusted with the responsibility of carrying out the state’s executive functions. But in emergencies, it has the powers to approve laws by decree. The President can dissolve parliament, for instance, when the Prime Minister loses a vote of confidence.
The parties that make up the government majority negotiate the appointment of ministers. Every new government needs to receive a vote of confidence in both houses of parliament within the first ten days of appointment. If the government is unable to hold the confidence of either house, it is required to resign. Most of the resignations in Italy’s parliamentary history have been due to splits in coalition of two or more parties that came together to form the government.
Ordinary legislation is the primary role of the parliament. Individual members may present bills in parliament on behalf of the government. Organizations such as the National Council for Economy and Labor and regional communes may also present bills. Petitions by way of a referendum or by 50,000 citizens of the electorate may also be presented as bills.
Both houses must approve bills for them to turn into laws. Laws come into effect when published in the Gazzetta Ufficiale.
Until the early 90s, Italy’s parliament was a multi-party system with two main parties dominating the scene. These were the Christian Democratic Party and the Italian Communist Party. There were also numerous small parties which carried considerable influence, such as the right-wing neo-fascist Italian Social Movement and the left-wing Italian Socialist Party, and a number of smaller secular parties in the center. The Christian Democratic Party, or DC, was the main governing party along with different smaller parties on the left and center. The main opposition parties were the Italian Socialist Party or PCI and the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement Party or MSI.
A major transformation took place in the country’s party system in the early 90s. This occurred due to national and international events. Communism declined, a number of officials from various political parties were judicially prosecuted, and the Communist Party transformed into the Democratic Party of the Left. A much smaller organization, the Italian Popular Party, took the place of the DC, which was tarnished by scandal. This party too almost disappeared after the elections of 1994.
Three new parties sprung up, which dominated the political right. These were the Northern League, which was constituted in 1991 and was a federalist and fiscal-reform movement with considerable support from the northern regions; the Forza Italia, a form of a neo-liberal alliance constituted in 1994 by Silvio Berlusconi; and the National Alliance, a successor of the MSI created in 1994, but which relinquished its fascist roots. In this manner, the Italian political arena was dominated by a polarization of the right and left, whereas previously parties in the center had dominated it.
Since the country was unified in 1861, its 20 regions mostly correspond to its historical regions. The territory is further divided into 110 provinces and nearly 8,000 communes. Most of the regions do not retain much power, especially when compared to countries with federal states like Germany. The regions retain 20 percent of tax revenue and they are granted by the constitution legislative powers in all matters that are not specifically covered by state legislation.
The five regions of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Sicily, Aosta Valley, Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol and Sardinia possess special status, which means the the governments in these five regions have special constitutional powers and more control over local laws and finances. These regions are located on the country’s borders, and with their special status they are able to preserve cultural differences. The presidents from the regions with special status can participate in sessions with the Council of Ministers in the discussion of matters that are relevant to their regions. This has led to conflict among the other regions, especially the northeastern regions where there is a strong call for similar statuses.
Communes are the basic administrative divisions in Italy. They are similar to municipalities or townships. A commune performs basic civil functions such as maintaining the registry of births and deaths and according contracts for public works and local roads. The mayor is the head of the commune and a legislative body assists the mayor, along with a communal council and an executive body. The mayor and the members of the legislative body or consiglio comunale are elected popularly.
The communes have their own police forces and have the right to collect local taxes. They issue ordinances and hold responsibility for services such as public transport, street lighting and refuse collection. The regions exercise some amount of control over the functioning of the communes and may call for the dissolution of communal councils if duties are neglected. EU nationals are eligible for voting in communal elections and can also stand as candidates.
For the Chamber of Deputies elections, citizens aged 18 and above are entitled to vote, while for the Senate, the age limit is 25. Italy has the highest voter turnout in all elections in the EU with over 80 percent of the electorate for the parliamentary elections.
In regional elections, the voters cast two ballots, with the first cast in a contest for 80 percent of the seats in the regional council, and the second being a plurality vote. The regional coalition that wins a plurality is given all the remaining seats along with the authority to preside over the regional government.
A single vote is cast in provincial elections. If more than half of the votes are won by a single provincial list, the seats are divided among all the lists corresponding to their vote proportion, and the presidency is awarded to the head of the winning list. In other situations, a run-off election is required between the two most successful lists with the winner taking 60 percent of the seats. A similar system is used in municipal elections in cities where the population is above 15,000. In such cases, one ballot is cast for the mayor and another for the council. Split voting is allowed. In Italy’s smaller cities, voters cast only one ballot and the winning list gets two-thirds of the seats and also the post of mayor.
According to the Italian constitution, referenda must take place to repeal laws and executive orders. This is done at the request of 500,000 signatories or five regional councils. Italy has a history of conducting referenda since the 70s, which has led to various civic and institutional reforms. Some of the key referenda that have been held in the past include those on nuclear power, abortion and electoral reform.
European Parliamentary Elections
EU nationals above the age of 18 who are residents of Italy are eligible to vote in European elections for MEPs or Members of the European Parliament.