What Does Giorgia Meloni’s Constitutional Reform Aim to Achieve?

Cesáreo Rodríguez Aguilera de Prat

10 mins - 22 de Noviembre de 2023, 07:00

For decades – at least since 1994 – Italy has been immersed in an endless and inconclusive political debate on “premierships”, more or less corrected majoritarianism and British-style bipartisanship, always with the rhetorical objectives of ensuring stability and governability. From the moment she took office as Prime Minister (Presidenza del Consiglio dei Ministri), Giorgia Meloni made clear her “presidentialist” objective, which has gradually modulated from an initial and ephemeral option for the US model to the French semi-presidential system and finally to another unusual one, that of the semi-parliamentary regime (Marco Valbruzzi and Sofia Ventura: Le riforme costituzionali in Italia. Le proposte della destra di governo, Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, September 2023). At the same time, Matteo Renzi, leader of the centrist Italia Viva (IV) party, suggested in August 2023 a relatively similar reform modelled on Italy’s model for electing mayors, but Meloni has completely stolen the limelight from him.

The proposal, presented by the Minister for Institutional Reforms, Isabella Casellati of Forza Italia (FI), opts for a semi-parliamentary model that risks unbalancing powers and proves dysfunctional by concentrating them in the Presidency of the Government, whose election is removed from both the President of the Republic and Parliament, since it is entrusted to direct popular vote. It should be remembered that this proposal was neither in the electoral programme of Fratelli d’Italia (FdI), Meloni’s party, nor in that of the right-wing coalition, which advocated the direct popular election of the President of the Republic. Moreover, it is somewhat paradoxical that this reform is now being promoted for the sake of “stability” and “governability” when it enjoys a very large and comfortable majority in both Houses of Parliament. In any case, a complex and long iter now lies ahead, as this constitutional reform requires two successive deliberations by the two Houses and an absolute majority in the second, with the possibility of a popular referendum.

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This right-wing obsession with strengthening the executive stems from Silvio Berlusconi who, in 1994, after the collapse of the Christian-Democratic regime, argued that a new phase was opening up in which there should be a kind of material popular investiture of the leader with the most votes, who would thus be shielded. In his opinion, if the leader “invested” by the people were to resign early, new elections would have to be called immediately. This was not the case: after the fall of the first Berlusconi government, it was the parliament that resolved the issue by appointing the technician Lamberto Dini as the new Premier. From then on, the alternation between the successive Berlusconi governments and those headed by Romano Prodi worked, with some ups and downs. Thus, between 1998 and 2011, the Berlusconi thesis of the material popular mandate of the Prime Minister did in fact work, until the troika (Commission, ECB and IMF) caused the Cavaliere to resign, giving way to another technical government, headed by Mario Monti. In short, Italy has not functioned as a de facto semi-parliamentary regime, nor has it managed to reduce party fragmentation, and the successive electoral reforms – always hybrid – have not contributed to making the political system more functional.

On the popular election of the President of the Republic, according to the polls, 46.6% are in favour, 36.8% are against and 16.6% express no opinion; while the popular election of the President of the Government is approved by 42.0%, rejected by 34.2%, and 25.6% express no opinion. However, what is most interesting is to see the preferences by party affinities (the data refer only to the President of the Republic): 84% of FI supporters are in favour, 82% of FdI and 75% of the Lega, with 54% of the centrists of Azione and IV also in favour. However, only 44% of Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S) voters and 36% of Partito Democratico (PD) voters support such a formula (Euroromedia Research poll, May 2023).

Meloni’s first draft seemed to be inspired by the German Chancellor’s model: personal parliamentary confidence, investiture only in the lower house, the power to ask the head of state to appoint and dismiss ministers, as well as early elections in the event that a question of confidence is lost, and parliament is unable to nominate a candidate. The final draft (November 2023) changed this model and opted, somewhat populistically, for the direct election of the President of the Government, with strengthened powers vis-à-vis the Head of State, whose powers would be taken away (he could no longer choose the Premier or dissolve Parliament), although the bicameral double confidence and the ratification of ministers by the President of the Republic would be maintained.

The formal official arguments to justify such a constitutional reform are of two types, some ideological (institutional changes will always be made within certain inalienable values such as the family, the homeland, free enterprise, subsidiarity, and Westernism) and others political, and these deserve further analysis. Italy has had 68 governments in 75 years, i.e., the average duration is one and a half years, while in the last twenty years the country has had twelve prime ministers. This is not only unsustainable, but also highly dysfunctional because the changes are often the result of obscure manoeuvres by the party apparatus: ribaltoni (overturns), palace games, and technical governments. With her reform, Meloni pompously announces that it would usher in the Third Republic in which it would be guaranteed that the Premier would always correspond to the will of the citizens, since in the event of resignation or incapacity he would be replaced by a member of the same political majority.

With the Meloni reform, the power of the President of the Government would be extraordinarily reinforced with the double idea of guaranteeing its primacy and achieving a “dragging effect” in parliamentary elections. The reform would involve changing articles 59 (life senators would be abolished, except in the case of former presidents of the Republic), 88 (the dissolution of Parliament), 92 (the appointment of the Premier), and 94 (confidence and censure). The President of the Government would be directly elected by the people and his eventual replacement could only come from the same political majority in order to respect the will of the voters, and it would be obligatory for him to be a member of Parliament in order to prevent a technician from being able to perform this function, while at the same time aiming to practically guarantee the mandate for the entire legislature (five years). On the one hand, there are many obscure points in this proposal – which explains the outright rejection of the PD and the M5S – and on the other hand, the current President of the Republic, Sergio Mattarella, elected by Parliament and not by the citizens, is by far the most popular authority in Italy today. At the same time, the policies of the technical governments – although they also made some mistakes – were quite effective in getting the country out of serious crises (Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, Dini, Monti, and Mario Draghi).

The Italian post-fascist reactionary right (Gianfranco Fini’s former Alleanza Nazionale) has always opted to reinforce the presidentialism of the executive, and FdI has inherited this same impulse. However, there are also unspoken tactical reasons for Meloni’s choice: on the one hand, tensions with her government partner Matteo Salvini (Lega), and on the other, the proximity of the European elections (June 2024). In the first case, the Lega is pushing for an accentuation of differential regionalism aimed at reducing aid to less developed regions – something that FdI cannot accept – and in the second, constitutional reform will become a good argument that could strengthen Meloni in the European electoral contest, although the eventual referendum would not take place until 2025.

In short, although Meloni enjoys a more than comfortable parliamentary majority, she does not have it all her own way because of Salvini’s possible disloyalties, which is why she intends to concentrate as much power as possible in her office to shield herself as the undisputed leader of all the right-wingers. In addition, the umpteenth electoral reform would have to be introduced, since in the Meloni project the popular election of the Premier is linked to a prize of 55% of the parliamentary seats for the lists associated with her on a national basis, but without clarifying whether a ballotage would be necessary and what percentage would have to be obtained to achieve this over-representation. In Italy, all electoral systems are different according to each representative level (national Parliament, Regions, local administrations, and European Parliament) and the current formula (the Rosato Law of 2017) is today almost unanimously considered to be very unsatisfactory (1/3 of MPs are elected in single-member constituencies with a majority system and 2/3 by proportional representation).

Meloni wants to opt for an unusual model whose application in Israel turned out to be totally dysfunctional: between 1996 and 2001, semi-parliamentarism was taken to its ultimate consequences in that country by introducing the direct popular election of the Prime Minister through a ballot different from that of the Knesset deputies. However, in the three elections in which this formula was used (1996, 1999 and 2001), no legislature was completed, three Prime Ministers succeeded each other (Benjamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak, and Ariel Sharon), party instability and fragmentation increased, and the coalitions were even more heterogeneous than before. As a result, there was no “bandwagon effect” between the two lists as there was a high differentiated dual vote and stability and governability were further complicated. After this disastrous experience, semi-parliamentarism was abandoned after 2001, and the traditional model was re-established in 2003, reflecting Meloni’s reliance on a tried and tested recipe that proved to be a complete failure (Emanuele Ottolenghi: “Israele: un premierato fallito”, in Gianfranco Pasquino- ed.-, Capi di Governo, Il Mulino, Bolonia, 2005).

If the Meloni reform is passed in Parliament with less than 2/3, it triggers art. 138 of the Constitution, which implies calling a popular referendum. Meloni is willing to push through her reform even without the support of the left and with the risk of having “snipers” in her own coalition, but not even the failures of Berlusconi (in the 2006 referendum) and Renzi (in the 2016 referendum, which in this case cost him his job) dissuade her. Moreover, she has already announced that even if she were to lose such a referendum she would not resign (she would not be legally obliged to do so), a risky scenario that the leader of the Italian right is prepared to face
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