Blog of the International Journal of Constitutional Law

I-CONnect Symposium–The Aftermath of the Italian General Election of March 4, 2018–The Italian Political Elections: A Definitive Back to the Past?

[Editor’s Note: This is Part II in our symposium on the Italian General Election of March 4, 2018. The Introduction to the symposium is available here. The symposium is convened by Antonia Baraggia.]

Francesco Clementi, Associate Professor of Comparative Public Law, University of Perugia (Italy)

During the twenty-four years that characterise the last six Italian Legislatures (1994-2018), commonly referred to as the Second Republic, Italy has experimented: seven political elections and fifteen Governments; three constitutional referenda; four electoral laws for the parliamentary elections as well as, for the first time, – overcoming an old tradition of self-restraint – two judgements of the Constitutional Court on the electoral law for the general elections.

The political-party system has had a similarly intense dynamism, with a major reshuffle and the disappearance of old and the birth of new political formations in the Parliament, resulting in a far-reaching replacement of the MPs. This has occurred to such an extent that, today, only the far-right, anti-immigrant League party – no longer referred to as League North – exists from amongst those political parties present in Parliament before the XII Legislature (1994).

All these events demonstrate the long and intense attempt to answer a question: following  the dramatic changes brought about by the end of the Cold War, will Italy replace the traditional consensual democracy with the logic of competitive democracy, adopting its consequent political-institutional instruments?

The political elections of March 4th, 2018 have offered three elements that can help us  better understand if Italy has made an irreversible step back from  a fully competitive democracy.

The first element is the return, due primarily to first of all due the new electoral law, to long, uncertain post-electoral negotiations to form a coalition government.

In fact, in two equally powerful Chambers, where the vote of confidence of both is needed to form a government, the election result has led to an electoral stalemate, an outcome of an electoral system (law n. 165 of the November 3rd, 2017) where seats are awarded by a complex system involving both direct constituencies and proportional representation. And where the pre-electoral coalition is not a binding rule neither is its adoption promoted or substantially favoured.

Therefore, since no coalition or party won a majority in either Chamber, it was necessary to make political deals to avoid a new election.

According to the Italian political tradition, the formation of the government is based on five moments, two of which – the preliminary talks between the political forces with the President of the Republic, and the consequent so-called “exploratory mandate” given to a political figure to try to build a political majority – are not explicitly provided for in the text of the Constitution. After this informal deal, normally led by the political figure who has received the exploratory mandate, the President of the Republic appoints the President of the Council of Ministers and, on his proposal, the Ministers. And before taking office – but after their oath on the Constitution in front of the President of the Republic – the President of the Council of Ministers and the Ministers must receive the vote of confidence of both Houses of Parliament.

In the past decades, during the so called Second Republic, the negotiation to form the government proceeded rapidly because political coalitions were substantially formed before the electoral vote. Therefore, it was relatively easy to form and appoint a government.

The recent change of the electoral system turned the clocks backwards, promoting a new political post-electoral stalemate, clearly reopening the “Pandora’s box” of the Italian political tradition for forming the Government, made up of lengthy, exhausting negotiations, uncertainty and political instability. The solution to this complicated political puzzle, emerging only after two long months of political negotiations, can be credited to a deep and strong political back-in-action of President of the Republic Sergio Mattarella, both in formal and informal ways.

Consequently, the second element is the confirmation of the increased role of the Head of State in the formation of the government, returning to an a old tradition, considered mostly obsolete in recent years.

In the Italian Constitution, the President of the Republic has clearly defined powers, functions and prerogatives in all the relevant political and institutional topics, including the formation of the Government. In the exercise of presidential duties, he performs without a legal responsibility, except in the case of high treason or violation of the Constitution. All his influence depends on the strength or the weakness of the political party system: if the party system is strong, the presidential role is weak, his powers politically contracted; however, if the political party system is weak, very fragmented and polarised, the Head of the State expands and enlarges his political influence and moral suasion, trying to promote a solution to form a government.

Therefore, in a Parliament without a clear post-electoral political majority, considering the long political stalemate, similar to 2013, Mattarella both sought to guarantee the institutional certainty in an uncertain political moment (in primis in front of the European Union and abroad), and acted to generate a political solution for forming a government, avoiding the risk of a new election during the summer.

After two different double exploratory mandates – by the President of the Senate (from center-right) and by the President of the Chamber (5-star) – to try to define a political perimeter of a parliamentary majority, and the “threat” to appoint a technical government led by the economist Carlo Cottarelli in absence of a coalition-deal between the political forces, Mattarella has appointed as Prime minister a non-political figure: the private-law professor Giuseppe Conte. He was the only figure able to sustain and to guarantee a minimum coalition deal promoted by the general election’s big winners (the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement and the far-right, anti-immigrant League party; in fact, the League, since the vote, has broken the pre-electoral center-right coalition that was built together with the party of Berlusconi and the far-right party of Giorgia Meloni, Brothers of Italy).

So, without the decisive action of the President of the Republic, Italy would not have had a political government: this is further evidence of the difficulties of a divided and weak politics, typical of a consensual democracy in limbo, still confused about its prospect for the future.

The third element concerns the nature of this strongly heterogeneous coalition government, which daily risks the failure of Parliament, due to its weak common political vision, especially considering the so-close budgetary-law and the next European election of 2019.

It is still not possible to determine whether Italy has definitively chosen to return to a consensual democracy. However, the signs undoubtedly are there.

Suggested Citation: Francesco Clementi, I-CONnect Symposium–The Aftermath of the Italian General Election of March 4, 2018–The Italian Political Elections: A Definitive Back to the Past?, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, August 15, 2018, at:


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