On the virtues of government instability in Italy

Since the Italian legislative elections of last September 25 were won by the right-wing and far-right coalition led by Giorgia Meloni, interpretations on the future fate of Italian politics have multiplied. The new Meloni government was sworn in almost a month later, on 22 October, and in a few days won the trust of the Chamber of Deputies (235 votes out of 400) and the Senate (115 votes out of 206).

Will the rise to power of the most right-wing coalition since the end of fascism have a lasting impact on the political system of one of the founding countries of the European Union? Would Italy have found a certain stability, given that the coalition obtained an absolute majority of the two Houses of Parliament? Will the emergence of such a political majority in Parliament translate into a “political” government, as opposed to the “technical” government or the “big agreements” that Italy has experienced with Mario Draghi since the last crisis? government of 2021?

67 governments in 74 years

Government instability is an obsession with the French Fifth Republic: considered by the constituents of 1958, Charles de Gaulle and Michel Debré, as the worst failure of the previous Third and Fourth Republic regimes, it was the ultimate justification for a radical change. political regime which was the replacement of the parliamentary regime with the hybrid regime that France now knows. Whether called a presidential-oriented parliamentary regime or a semi-presidential regime, the Fifth regime has kept what its creators had promised: a stable system, in which a single government was forced to resign before the end of the legislature in 1964. years , from the motion of censure of 1962.

Italy has been in a diametrically opposite situation since the end of the Second World War. With 67 successive governments in 74 years from the entry into force of the current Constitution, on January 1, 1948, government instability is the main characteristic of the Italian Republic.

This instability is the consequence of the union between a voting system that has often been modified but which has been largely proportional (despite the corrections in the sense of the majority) and a perfect bicameralism, that is a Parliament whose two Houses have exactly the same powers: both can censor the government even if they do not necessarily have the same majority, because the electoral base is different.

Pressure from the president, other parties and European partners

Despite an absolute majority in both chambers, the coalition under the aegis of Giorgia Meloni seemed to encounter difficulties in forming a government.

The constitutional procedure, composed of written norms and customs, provides that the President of the Republic, having heard the main political parties that have emerged as winners of a legislative election, gives a mandate to propose a government to the group leader or the coalition that could obtain the majority appointment by the parliamentarians. Giorgia Meloni finally announced her government on 21 October, very quickly, to reassure the European partners, immediately after the election of the presidents of the two chambers by their new members.

The Italian president has no real decision-making power at this stage, other than to ensure the smooth running of the process, but he has already claimed to exercise a power to control manifest error during the formation of the 2018 governing coalition, when the the appointment of a Eurosceptic minister, Paolo Savona, to the Ministry of Economy led to a presidential veto.

Thus, the formation of the Meloni government was supervised from several fronts: that of President Mattarella, that of the European institutions and in particular of the President of the Commission Ursula von der Leyen, as well as that of Western partners. Giorgia Meloni was therefore obliged to reassure, at the international level, both on her Atlanticism in support of Ukraine and on her respect for the European treaties, in particular in economic and budgetary matters.

Technical government or political government

Members of the winning coalition also played a leadership role: Brothers of Italy got only 26% of the votes, so much so that the League by Matteo Salvini e Come on Italy by Silvio Berlusconi made claims for important ministries throughout the negotiations. They took five each, but neither the Interior, nor Justice, nor European Affairs.

Giorgia Meloni’s choice has been presented since the elections as a binary, between a political government with members of her coalition in key positions, breaking with Mario Draghi’s technocratism, and a technical government in the continuity of the previous government, still in office and charged with negotiating European aid in the context of the energy crisis at the European Council of 20-21 October. It was the political choice that clearly prevailed in the end, with in spite of everything six “technical” ministers including that of the Interior, a former prefect.

Both options presented political risks, and at the same time show the fragility of the coalition: a political choice would have satisfied the allies and the voters, but worried the international actors who will closely observe Italy in the future; a technical choice would probably have been sanctioned by voters and allies, because Brothers of Italy he benefited from his role as an opposition during the previous legislature and as group leader from the novelty of his candidacy (his party was the only opposition party to Mario Draghi’s government).

The choice of personalities close to the head of the government or non-political in key roles wants to reassure about the “normality” of this government: the Minister of Economy, affiliated with La Ligue, was already a member of the previous Draghi government. But the potential stability of the Italian government is therefore already weakened by this difficult choice.

Is Italy in danger of becoming an illiberal democracy?

The internal and international fear of seeing Italy join the European democracies that have become illiberal together with Poland and Hungary is undoubtedly legitimate in substance, but it appears unlikely in reality.

The main difference with the majority led by Viktor Orban in Hungary is certainly the absence, for Giorgia Meloni’s right, of a qualified majority that allows him to revise the Constitution. However, he had proposed it: to strengthen the political legitimacy of the presidency of the Council of Ministers in Italy, Meloni wanted to introduce the election of the head of government by direct universal suffrage into the Italian Constitution.

This idea is inspired by the French Constitution in its Gaullist version and should serve, by strengthening the primary ministerial character of the regime, to stabilize the Italian institutions. However, the winning coalition failed to win the two-thirds of the parliamentary seats needed for a review and so such a change is now unlikely.

However, this proposal provoked a discussion in which all political parties took part: we can welcome the existence of such an institutional debate, which is undoubtedly not alien to the instability of the regime, which encourages such controversies. We can also rejoice that the debate, in a parliamentary coalition system, is not synonymous with reform, because the rigid Italian Constitution is as much proof of stability as governments of instability …


Of Eleonora BottiniProfessor of Public Law, Director of the Caen Legal Research Institute, University of Caen Normandy.

The original version of this article was published in The Conversation.