Principal Government Officials
Chief of State: President Giorgio Napolitano
Head of Government: Prime Minister Enrico Letta
Italy has been a democratic republic since June 2, 1946, when the monarchy was abolished by popular referendum. The constitution came into force on January 1, 1948.
The Italian state is centralized. The prefect of each of the provinces is appointed by and answerable to the central government. In addition to the provinces, the constitution provides for 20 regions with limited governing powers. Five regions--Sardinia, Sicily, Trentino-Alto Adige, Valle d'Aosta, and Friuli-Venezia Giulia--function with special autonomy statutes. The other 15 regions were established in 1970 and vote for regional "councils." The establishment of regional governments throughout Italy has brought some decentralization to the national governmental machinery, and recent governments have devolved further powers to the regions. Many regional governments, particularly in the north of Italy, are seeking additional powers.
The 1948 constitution established a bicameral parliament (Chamber of Deputies and Senate), an independent judiciary, and an executive branch composed of a Council of Ministers (cabinet), headed by the president of the council (prime minister). The president of the republic is elected for 7 years by the parliament sitting jointly with a small number of regional delegates. The president nominates the prime minister, who chooses the other ministers. The Council of Ministers--in practice composed mostly of members of parliament--must retain the confidence of both houses.
The houses of parliament are popularly and directly elected by a proportional representation system. Under 2005 legislation, the Chamber of Deputies has 630 members (12 of whom are elected by Italians abroad). In addition to 315 elected members (six of whom are elected by Italians abroad), the Senate includes former presidents and several other persons appointed for life according to special constitutional provisions. Both houses are elected for a maximum of 5 years, but either may be dissolved before the expiration of its normal term. Legislative bills may originate in either house and must be passed by a majority in both.
The Italian judicial system is based on Roman law modified by the Napoleonic code and subsequent statutes. There is only partial judicial review of legislation in the American sense. A constitutional court, which passes on the constitutionality of laws, is a post-World War II innovation. Its powers and the volume and frequency of its decisions are not as extensive as those of the U.S. Supreme Court.
The postwar period saw frequent government turnovers (more than 60 and counting), but the dominance of the Christian Democratic (DC) party--a broad group with both right-wing and left-wing factions--lent comparative stability to Italy's political scene.
From 1992 to 1997, Italy faced significant challenges as voters--disenchanted with past political paralysis, massive government debt, extensive corruption, and organized crime's considerable influence--demanded political, economic, and ethical reforms. In 1993 referenda, voters approved substantial changes, including the abolishment of some ministries and a move from a proportional to a largely majoritarian electoral system. (However, parliament passed a new electoral law in 2005 based on full proportional assignment of seats.)
Major political parties, beset by scandal and loss of voter confidence, underwent far-reaching changes. New political forces and new alignments of power emerged in March 1994 national elections. The election saw a major turnover in the new parliament, with 452 out of 630 deputies and 213 out of 315 senators elected for the first time. The 1994 elections also swept media magnate Silvio Berlusconi--and his Freedom Pole coalition--into office as Prime Minister. Berlusconi, however, was forced to step down in January 1995 when one member of his coalition withdrew support. The Berlusconi government was succeeded by a technical government headed by Prime Minister Lamberto Dini, which fell in early 1996. New elections in 1996 brought a center-left coalition to government for the first time since the end of World War II.
A series of center-left coalitions dominated Italy's political landscape between 1996 and 2001. In April 1996, national elections led to the victory of a center-left coalition (the Olive Tree) under the leadership of Romano Prodi. Prodi's government became the second-longest to stay in power before he narrowly lost a vote of confidence (by three votes) in October 1998. A new government was formed by Democratic Party of the Left leader and former-communist Massimo D'Alema. In April 2000, following a poor showing by his coalition in regional elections, D'Alema resigned. The succeeding center-left government, including most of the same parties, was headed by Giuliano Amato, who had previously served as Prime Minister in 1992-93.
National elections held on May 13, 2001, returned Berlusconi to power at the head of the five-party center-right Freedom House coalition, comprising the prime minister's own party, Forza Italia, the National Alliance, the Northern League, the Christian Democratic Center, and the United Christian Democrats. This Berlusconi government served its entire term.
In national elections held April 9-10, 2006, Romano Prodi's center-left Union coalition won a narrow victory over Berlusconi's Freedom House coalition. The Union coalition included the Democratic Party (born of the November 2007 fusion of the Democrats of the Left and the Daisy Party), UDEUR (Union of Democrats for Europe), Rose in the Fist (made up by Italian Social Democrats and Italian Radical Party), Communist Renewal, the Italian Communist Party, Italy of Values, and the Greens.
In May 2006, the parliament elected Giorgio Napolitano as the Republic's President. President Napolitano formerly served as a lifetime senator, Minister of the Interior, and a member of the European Parliament as a member of center-left parties. President Napolitano's term ends in May 2013. The Senate, lower house, and regional representatives will vote to elect his successor.
In January 2008, the Prodi government fell when small coalition partner UDEUR withdrew support. In February, the President dissolved parliament and Silvio Berlusconi returned to power after defeating former Rome Mayor Walter Veltroni by a comfortable margin in elections on April 13-14, 2008. Berlusconi's winning coalition was composed of the People of Liberty (a union of Forza Italia and National Alliance), the Northern League, and the Movement for Autonomy. Berlusconi was sworn in as Prime Minister on May 8. Veltroni resigned as leader of the opposition in February 2009. His deputy, Dario Franceschini, was elected new Democratic Party (PD) leader until party primary elections held in October 2009, when Pierluigi Bersani was elected PD national secretary. In April 2010, Gianfranco Fini, cofounder of the People of Liberty, and a number of adherents broke from it and established a new opposition party called Future and Liberty, weakening Berlusconi’s coalition, which continued nevertheless to govern.
In November 2011, escalating economic problems undermined the Berlusconi government, with severe debt and rising bond yields pressuring Italy’s economy. Berlusconi announced that he would resign from his post when parliament passed an economic stability law that would enact the first tranche of austerity measures demanded by the European Union (EU). Parliament passed the stability law November 12 and Berlusconi stepped down later the same day. President Napolitano appointed former EU Commissioner Mario Monti as the new Prime Minister on November 13. Monti named a government of technocrats and embarked on a series of reform measures to revive Italy’s stagnant economy.
Italy's dramatic self-renewal transformed the political landscape between 1992 and 1997. Scandal investigations touched thousands of politicians, administrators, and businessmen; the shift from a proportional to majoritarian voting system also altered the political landscape.
Party changes were sweeping. The Christian Democratic Party dissolved; the Italian People's Party and the Christian Democratic Center emerged. Other major parties, such as the Socialists, saw support plummet. A new populist and free-market oriented movement, Forza Italia, gained wide support among moderate voters. The National Alliance broke from the neofascist Italian Social Movement. A trend toward two large coalitions--one on the center-left and the other on the center-right--emerged from the April 1995 regional elections. For the 1996 national elections, the center-left parties created the Olive Tree coalition while the center right united again under the Freedom Pole. The May 2001 elections ushered into power a refashioned center-right coalition dominated by Berlusconi's party, Forza Italia. The April 2006 elections returned the center-left to power under the eight-party Union coalition, a successor to the Olive Tree.
In October 2007, the Democrats of the Left and the Daisy parties officially merged to form the Democratic Party. Veltroni was chosen as party leader and was the center-left's candidate in the April 2008 elections. Silvio Berlusconi launched an alliance between his Forza Italia party and Gianfranco Fini's National Alliance. The parties ran together under the People of Liberty symbol in April 2008. The election greatly simplified parliament, dramatically reducing the numbers of parties, and for the first time since World War II, leaving communist parties out of parliament. People of Liberty (37.4%) won the largest share of the vote and took power in coalition with a strengthened Northern League (8.3%) and the tiny Movement for Autonomy (1.1%). The Democratic Party scored 33.2% and ran in alliance with Italy of Values (4.4%), while the Union of the Center (5.6%) ran alone.
In March 2009, Forza Italia and National Alliance changed the People of Liberty identification from an alliance to a party. The mass center-right party, led by Berlusconi, is Italy's largest party and one of the largest in Europe.
Italy was a founding member of the European Community--now the European Union (EU). Italy was admitted to the United Nations in 1955 and is a member and strong supporter of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade/World Trade Organization (GATT/WTO), the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and the Council of Europe. It chaired the CSCE (the forerunner of the OSCE) in 1994; the EU from July to December 1990, January to June 1996, and July to December 2003; and the G-8 in 2001 and in 2009. Italy served a 2-year term on the UN Security Council in 2007-2008.
Italy firmly supports the United Nations and its international security activities. Italy is leading the UN mission in Lebanon (UNIFIL) and has actively participated in and deployed troops in support of UN peacekeeping missions in Somalia, Mozambique, and Timor-Leste. It has provided critical support for NATO and EU operations in Libya, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo, Albania, Georgia, and Chad. Italy, under NATO's ISAF, maintains a Provincial Reconstruction Team in the western Afghanistan province of Herat, commands RC-West, and maintains a Carabinieri police training center. Italy has supported reconstruction and development assistance to the Iraqi people through humanitarian workers and other officials, particularly in Dhi Qar Province, and was a leading contributor to the NATO Training Mission-Iraq, with approximately 70 military personnel and Carabinieri police trainers. Currently almost 6,500 Italian troops are deployed, including approximately 550 in Kosovo, 1,100 in Lebanon as part of UNIFIL, and approximately 4,200 in Afghanistan.
The Italian Government seeks to obtain consensus with other European countries on various defense and security issues within the EU as well as NATO. European integration and the development of common defense and security policies will continue to be of primary interest to Italy.
Sources:CIA World Factbook (January 2012)
U.S. Dept. of State Country Background Notes ( January 2012)