Italy has been a republic since June 1946
and is governed under a constitution that came into effect on Jan. 1, 1948.
It has a parliamentary system of government with many political parties,
none of which commands a majority of popular votes. Italian society remains
strongly divided, and Italian governments have often been weak and ineffective.
The constitution of 1948 replaced the constitution
(Statuto) of the kingdom of Italy, which had been amended or ignored, but
never formally abolished, by the Fascist regime of Benito Mussolini. The
1948 constitution, differing from the Statuto in its attention to economic
and social questions, reflects an uneasy combination of liberal, Marxist,
and Catholic influences. Many of its provisions have been ignored in practice.
The constitution can be amended by legislation or by referendum. The legislative amendment process requires that an amending bill be passed by two successive legislative sessions at least three months apart and that the bill win an absolute majority in the second session. If the amendment receives a two-thirds majority, it goes into effect immediately. If the majority is smaller, a popular referendum may be called for within three months by a sufficient number of deputies or senators, electors, or regional councils. However, the parliament never enacted enabling legislation for the referendum provision.
Italy's bicameral parliament consists of
a senate and a chamber of deputies. Although both houses are legally equal,
the chamber of deputies is politically more influential and most leading
politicians are members of it. The senate is made up of 315 members popularly
elected on a regional basis to five-year terms, five outstanding citizens
appointed for life by the president of Italy, and all former presidents
who desire to hold a seat. The chamber of deputies consists of 630 members
popularly elected to five-year terms. The president may dissolve the chamber
before the five-year term expires. Citizens at least 25 years of age may
vote for senatorial candidates, and citizens at least 18 years old may
vote for candidates for the chamber. Until 1993, elections to both houses
were based on proportional representation, whereby political parties obtained
seats in proportion to votes won. As a result of a referendum held in April
1993, the electoral procedure for both houses was changed, so that in subsequent
elections 75 percent of the seats in each house would be constituency-based
and 25 percent would be allotted on a proportional basis.
The parliament functions through a system of standing committees in each house. The committees are organized in proportion to the distribution of party strength in each house and can pass certain types of bills without submitting them to a full session of either house. The most important function of the parliament is to determine whether a government is to hold office or be replaced. By the parliament's vote of confidence or no confidence, it decides if the government, that is, a particular council of ministers headed by a particular premier, is to continue in power. The parliament also makes laws, elects the president, supervises the executive, and appropriates money.
The executive branch of government is composed
of the president, the council of ministers, and the civil service.
The President. The president of the republic, the formal head of state, is elected for seven years by a joint session of the parliament, with the participation of representatives of the regions. The president chooses a premier able to secure the approval of the parliament, and also appoints life senators and certain members of the constitutional court. Presidents, like the kings before them, are supposed to be above partisan politics, but in fact they have sometimes intervened in political affairs and played crucial roles in party conflicts, the formation of coalition governments, and policy-making and implementation.
The Council of Ministers
Executive power is exercised by the council of ministers, or cabinet, headed by a premier. It is collectively responsible to the parliament and must have the confidence of both houses. The council formulates legislative policy, and its members appear on the floor of either house, participate in debate, and are subject to questioning. The premier is responsible for administrative coordination, general policy formation, and political leadership.
The Civil Service
The Italian civil service is designed as
a merit service, with entry and promotion based on competitive examination
and objective evaluation. However, factionalism within political parties
and the use of influence have undermined the objectivity of the merit system.
Entry into the several levels of the bureaucracy is closely tied to levels
of education, which tend in turn to parallel social levels, and thus favor
members of the upper class.
Decision-making in the government bureaucracy is oligarchical: the top leaders make the decisions. Even minor questions go to Rome for decision, and in Rome senior officials refuse to delegate authority to subordinates.
Italy is divided into 20 regions, which contain
95 provinces (counting the undivided region of Valle d'Aosta as a province)
and more than 8,000 communes. All 20 regions were promised some autonomy
by the 1948 constitution. In 1967 five were granted special status and
a large measure of autonomy in view of their special ethnic and cultural
circumstances. These regions, which are governed by regional councils,
were the Valle d'Aosta, Trentino-Alto Adige, and Friuli-Venezia Giulia,
all in the north, and the islands of Sicily and Sardinia. In the following
year, the other 15 regions were also granted some autonomy; they elected
their first regional councils in 1970. Listed from north to south and in
tiers from the Tyrrhenian to the Adriatic seas, these were Piedmont, Lombardy,
and Venetia; Liguria and Emilia-Romagna; Tuscany, Umbria, and the Marches;
Latium and Abruzzi; Campania and Molise; Basilicata and Apulia; and Calabria.
The government of the commune is the most important local government unit. It maintains vital statistics, provides traffic control, water supply, sewerage, and transportation services, develops planning and zoning, and provides the buildings and maintenance personnel for elementary schools.
Provincial governments are of lesser importance. They provide mainly social services and maintenance of buildings, provincial (secondary) roads, and secondary schools.
Local government is subject to supervision by the national government and at all levels is heavily dependent on loans and grants from the national government.
Unicameral legislatures, or councils, are elected by adult suffrage in each commune, province, and region. Proportional representation is used, except in smaller communes where the list of candidates receiving a plurality wins four-fifths of the seats.
The councils choose from among their own members the executive branch, called a giunta, headed by a mayor, president of a province, or president of a region. The giunta must have the confidence of a majority in the council. Since it is rare that one party has a majority, coalition governments are often formed.
A national official, the prefect, is responsible
for maintaining law and order in each province. Provincial and communal
budgets and local administrative decisions are subject to the approval
of the prefect, who can suspend or dismiss local government officers for
cause, dissolve a council and appoint a commissioner in its place until
a new council can be elected, and rule through a commissioner if a council
cannot agree on a giunta.
The prefect is subject to restraints, however. The minister of the interior exercises close control over a prefect's activities, and local governments can use political influence to restrict them. As a political appointee, the prefect often operates in the interest of the party in power.
The legal system, which predates the republic, is based on Roman law. General principles are applied by courts to particular cases, and precedent, the accumulation of earlier court decisions, is not binding.
The judiciary is a career service entered by examination. Successful candidates, young law school graduates, can hope for gradual advancement to higher courts and for assignment to more desirable locations. During their careers they alternate among judicial, prosecuting, and administrative functions. A superior council of the judiciary -- Consiglio Superiore della Magistratura, or CSM -- regulates the judicial service, but it is only partially independent, and the ministry of justice retains influence over assignments and promotions.
There are two national court systems, the
ordinary civil and criminal courts and the administrative courts, as well
as a number of special courts for such matters as taxes, assessments, and
tariffs. The courts are jammed with backlogs of cases, and dockets are
often cleared by mass amnesties.
At the base are the conciliatori, who decide minor civil issues. The first rung in the regular court ladder is occupied by the pretori, career judges with jurisdiction in lesser civil and criminal cases. Above them are the three-judge tribunali, with both original and appellate jurisdiction, and above them are the five-judge courts of appeal. Major criminal cases are heard by courts of assizes, composed of two judges and six laymen, and a court of assizes appeals. The highest regular court, the court of cassation, hears appeals on issues of law from the courts of appeal and the court of assizes appeals.
The administrative court hierarchy is not composed of career judges, but of provincial administrative personnel, including the prefects. The administrative courts deal with claims against national and local government.
The Constitutional Court
An innovation introduced in 1956, the constitutional court is based on United States experience with judicial review of legislation to decide its constitutionality. It hears only cases involving the constitutionality of laws and decrees, and its jurisdiction can only be invoked by judges of the regular courts. The constitutional court has been very cautious in challenging the other branches of government and in interpreting the constitution. Nevertheless, it has run into some trouble, including rivalry with the court of cassation.
Italian political parties went through upheaval
and change in the early 1990's. The country's largest party, the Partito
della Democrazia Cristiana (Christian Democratic Party, or DC), lost a
huge measure of popular support. And in an even greater reversal, the Partito
Comunista Italiano (Italian Communist Party, or PCI), the largest Communist
Party in Western Europe, went out of existence. In addition, several new
parties were founded and a development in right-wing politics in northern
Italy assumed a larger profile and national dimension. An election in 1992
saw the DC receive less than 30 percent of the vote, and the coalition
parties that had, under the dominance of the DC, controlled the some 50
governments since the end of the post-World War II DC-PCI coalition, for
the first time received less than half the votes cast.
The Christian Democrats had formed the core of all governments since 1945. From 1948 until 1963, the DC, a largely conservative group enjoying close links with the Roman Catholic Church, was strong enough to rule alone, although it usually formed coalitions with other parties.
The Communist Party had been the second largest party and the main opposition force. Since World War II it had been a mass electoral machine, aiming to take power by electoral rather than revolutionary means. During the 1950's and 1960's, the PCI became independent and highly critical of the Soviet Union. It accepted multiparty democracy, a major role for private enterprise, and continued Italian membership in NATO. Nevertheless, in the late 1980's, as East European Communist parties were being eliminated from the governments of countries including, eventually, the Soviet Union itself, the PCI, under the leadership of Achille Occhetto, chose to address its diminishing electoral returns by changing its name. In 1991 the membership ratified foundation of a new Partito Democratico della Sinistra (Democratic Party of the Left, or PDS), as a mass social democratic party. However, in the next elections, this party did poorly, falling 10 percent of the total vote short of the PCI's showing in its last election. A minority of the Communist Party tried to preserve its Marxist heritage as the Partito della Refondazione Comunista, or Party of Communist Refoundation. In 1992 it won nearly 6 percent of the vote and won the fifth largest bloc of seats in parliament.
The Italian Socialist Party (PSI) was the third major party during the postwar period. Following its foundation in 1892, the party underwent a series of schisms, the most important in 1921 when the left wing broke away to form the PCI. The heyday of the PSI was the period 1983-1987 when its leader, Bettino Craxi, headed the longest-enduring government of the postwar years, for 1,060 days.
The parties that grew in importance as the previous power structure waned were the Northern (originally Lombard) League, in the north, and the La Rete party, in the south. The Northern League emerged on the national scene in 1990 when the party, headed by Umberto Bossi, became the second largest party in the regional elections after the DC. The Northern League, uniting the Lombard League and similar "leagues" in other northern regions, emphasized public indignation over the ineffectiveness and corruption of the central government, especially the transfer of taxes raised in the north to Mafia-run projects in the south. Their most compelling slogan was "further from Rome and closer to Europe." In the south, as the anti-Communist collusion between the DC and the Mafia came under much more public scrutiny, a wave of antigovernment assassinations swept Sicily. The mayor of Palermo, a former Christian Democrat named Leoluca Orlando, founded a protest party, La Rete (Network), in 1992; locally, the party came second behind the DC, drawing 27 percent of the vote. After the election, the DC's Oscar Scalfaro was elected president. He named Socialist Giuliano Amato the premier.
Some of the long-established smaller parties have played a disproportionately large part in Italian politics because of proportional representation, the interest aroused by their proposals, and the political skill of their leaders. Governments have often needed their votes in parliament to stay in office. The Italian Social Movement (MSI) is a neo-Fascist group. In 1992, the MSI received considerable attention when Benito Mussolini's granddaughter Alessandra won a seat in parliament representing Naples. The Social Democrats (PSDI) are a centrist party. The Radicals (PR), an anticlerical leftist group, played a leading role in winning -- against vehement Vatican and DC opposition -- the rights to divorce, contraception, and abortion. The Republicans (PRI) are a moderate anticlerical party in the tradition of the 19th-century reformer Giuseppe Mazzini. In 1981 PRI leader Giovanni Spadolini became the first Italian premier since 1945 who was not a Christian Democrat; he headed a five-party coalition cabinet consisting largely of Christian Democrats. The Liberal Party (PLI), founded by Camillo Benso di Cavour in 1848, is Italy's oldest party. It is a conservative group that represents business interests and espouses the principles of 19th-century laissez-faire economics. The most important party of the far left is Proletarian Democracy, which was formed in 1974 by Socialist and Communist dissidents opposed to the PCI's tendency to compromise with the DC. The Greens, like their counterparts in other European countries, are leftist, pacifistic, antinuclear, and in favor of measures to protect the environment. In 1992 the Greens won 2.8 percent of the vote, virtually unchanged from 2.5 percent in 1987. Two important regional parties are the Südtiroler Volkspartei, representing the German-speaking population of the South Tirol, and the Union Valdôtaine, representing the French-speaking inhabitants of the Valle d'Aosta.
During the 1970's Italy was beset with terrorism by small groups, some justifying their actions in extreme-left phraseology. In 1978 Aldo Moro, the DC leader most identified with DC-PCI cooperation, was kidnapped by one such group, the Red Brigades, and murdered after 55 days of captivity. Subsequent revelations about two clandestine groups made up of rightist figures in Italy's banking, political, and military establishments -- a NATO-connected group called Gladio ("Sword") and a Masonic lodge known as Propaganda Due, or P-2 -- have strengthened the belief of many Italians that much more about Moro's fate is still to be explained.
A massive corruption scandal that came to light in Milan in early 1992 rocked Italy's political system to its very foundations. Throughout 1992 and 1993 allegations were made that leading politicians and other government officials had demanded and accepted bribes in connection with corporate mergers or the awarding of public-works contracts. More scandals involving criminal ties between politicians and the Mafia broke in 1993. Among those accused or implicated were many top figures in the DC and the PSI, including two former premiers, three party leaders, seven cabinet ministers, and more than 100 members of parliament. In a referendum held in April 1993, the electorate, partially in response to the scandals, overwhelmingly endorsed measures mandating government reforms, including the abolition of strict proportional representation in parliamentary elections. Premier Amato resigned shortly after the referendum was held. He was succeeded by Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, a political independent and the governor of the country's central bank, the Banca d'Italia.
The elections of March 1994 were the first held under the new "first past the post" system of proportional representation endorsed by the April 1993 referendum. Despite the success of the left in local elections held in November 1993, the winners in March were the right-wing parties and the new Forza Italia ("Go, Italy") party created only months before the election by the Milan-based media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi. Its campaign was fought in alliance with the Northern League, which lost a heavy share of its votes to Berlusconi, and with the neo-Fascist National Alliance headed by Gianfranco Fini. In the vote for the Chamber of Deputies, the parties that formed the "Pole of Liberty" (Forza Italia, Northern League, National Alliance, and the rump Christian Democratic Center) were overwhelmingly successful in northern and central Italy. The left did best in Naples and Basilicata, but in Palermo, the neo-Fascists overtook Orlando's La Rete by a wide margin.
Politically important interest groups exist in the principal economic spheres. Industrialists are organized in Confindustria, and large landowners are organized in Confagricoltura. The greatest number of peasants, the small proprietors and renters, are in Conacoltivatori, a Christian Democratic-sponsored farmers' association that exerts strong influence on agricultural policy.
About one-third of the workforce is organized in three major labor union federations. The largest is the Italian General Confederation of Labor (CGIL), followed by the Italian Confederation of Free Syndicates (CISL) and the Italian Union of Labor (UIL). The CISL was tied to the Christian Democratic Party and the UIL to the Social Democratic and Republican parties until the 1960's. The ties of the CGIL to the PCI were loosened, but the Communist Party remained the strongest political influence within the labor movement.
The largest private group in Italy is the Italian Catholic Action Society. More than half the Christian Democratic legislators have been members, and its members are in national and local bureaucracies, in government-controlled industries, and in other interest groups. Its civic committees are a major campaign force for the Christian Democratic Party, but the national party leadership does not control the organization because each bishop controls Catholic Action within his diocese. Although its national leaders are a right-wing influence within the Christian Democratic Party, there is a wide variety of opinion, from right to left, within Catholic Action.
Italy was disarmed by the Peace Treaty of 1947 and was subsequently rearmed after joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949. In 1993 Italy had an army of 223,000, a navy of 44,000, and an air force of 78,000. In that year the country budgeted the equivalent of $16.5 billion for defense.
In the years immediately following World War II, Italy displayed an uneasy neutralism in the growing cold war, but after 1947, when the Socialists and Communists were ejected from Premier Alcide De Gasperi's cabinet, it became a U.S. ally. In 1949 Italy became a charter member of NATO. Italy is a founding member of the European Community (now the European Union) and the various West European institutions of cooperation. It became a member of the United Nations in 1955.