Antonio Lettieri: Italy – The suicide of parties

As a large government majority failed to agree on the election of a new President of the Republic, resorting to the reelection of Mattarella.

Antonio Lettieri is Editor of Insight and President of CISS – Center for International Social Studies (Roma). He was National Secretary of CGIL; Member of ILO Governing Body,and Advisor of Labor Minister for European Affairs.(

Cross-posted from Insight

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In democratic regimes, governments depend on parliamentary majorities, and therefore are subject to their eventual change during the legislature or after the elections when the normal electoral deadline arrives. But this tendentious variability of governments does not affect the continuity of the head of state, elected by Parliament for a predetermined period with respect to which any change in parliamentary majorities is irrelevant.

Ultimately, the distinction between the role of the government and that of the head of state lies in the possible variability of the former and in the constitutionally defined stability of the latter. In Italy we have experienced this radical difference in the history of the second post-war period during which seven presidents of the Republic have succeeded, supreme guardians of the Constitution, while governments supported by variable or opposing majorities have changed.

This also happens in a semi-presidential regime as in the case of France where Mitterrand, elected head of state by the Socialist Party, twice, during his double mandate, found himself having to appoint centre-right governments. Or as it happened later, when Chirac, president of the Republic from the right, appointed Jospin as head of the government of the Socialist Party, with a consequent radical change of the political program.

The distinction of roles that is reflected in the guarantee of stability of the head of state is a fundamental distinctive element. After all, in a republican regime his election does not coincide with the colour of the more or less provisional majority which, over time, defines the formation of governments. The difference is a factor of stability of the democratic regime and of its compliance with the constitution.

The essential and specific function of the President of the Republic is intertwined with the temporal limitation of his mandate unlike a monarchical regime such as in the case of Great Britain or Spain. Over the decades we have seen in Italy a single exception when the presidency of Giorgio Napolitano extended beyond the traditional limit in the presence of a state of crisis that had affected not only Italy but the whole of Europe. The circumstance was rightly considered exceptional, and Napolitano after less than two years left the Quirinale to Sergio Mattarella, the new president elected by Parliament.

The case that occurred at the end of January, when the parliament renounced the election of the new president, did not occur in a particular and unexpected crisis. The country, although burdened by the difficulties generated by the epidemiological crisis, has started to grow again, with rates among the highest in Europe. Considering the size of the current parliamentary majority in support of the government, the election of the head of state arose as a pure question of selecting among the possible candidates on the basis of their qualities, their political biography, even regardless of their membership in the parliamentary representation . Parliament has had a plurality of possible choices: from the head of government Mario Draghi to a deputy, or to an external exponent who has shown himself for his public functions or with experience in the direction of the government as in the case of Giuliano Amato, appointed in the same days at the presidency of the Constitutional Court.

But the same overwhelming majority that supports the government failed to find an agreement for the election of the new president, after the resignation that Mattarella had announced a few months before the deadline. In essence, for no plausible reason, Parliament abdicated one of its essential functions such as the appointment of a new head of state.

We had to take note of a parliamentary majority that supports the government, but turns out to be unreliable and unable to carry out a constitutional task that is both elementary and fundamental. One wonders what real role the same coalition of parties can play in a phase of evident difficulty in the country, marked by a high unemployment rate which in the South reaches a level higher than that of Greece. Meanwhile, the effects of the pandemic have exacerbated the pre-existing difficulties of the health system and the school. Difficulties not new but exacerbated by the pandemic in a country that was already experiencing a lower national income, with purchasing power parity, than at the beginning of the century.

It is in this context that the great majority of the government, responsible for guaranteeing an acceptable level of political stability in the country, failed to agree on the election of the President of the Republic, resorting to the re-election of Mattarella who, having fulfilled his dignified task for seven years, he had announced months in advance of his decision, in harmony with the de facto Constitution and the country’s political tradition, to deem his function exhausted.

That the country was going through a difficult phase dominated by the pandemic crisis is beyond question. But it is not the only case in Europe. The elections took place in many countries affected by the pandemic and its economic and social consequences. But this did not prevent recourse to the polls.

Great Britain, Germany, Holland, Portugal have regularly called elections. France is preparing to hold them next spring. But in Italy the ordinary democratic rules of political representation with recourse to elections, when made necessary by the crisis of the alignments, have been suspended.

The policy of the current government majority is questionable due to the distance between the measures adopted and the difficult situation of large sections of the population affected by the crisis. But even in these circumstances, indeed precisely in relation to these circumstances, it cannot reasonably be assumed that his impotence would lead to the impossibility of electing a new President of the Republic after the resignation announced many months in advance by President Mattarella. A picture of political powerlessness difficult to predict, even beyond the most pessimistic forecasts.

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