• Adrian Waters

Why Italy should have a popularly-elected head of state

Italy held an election between 24th and 29th January 2022 in which only elected representatives, and not ordinary citizens, had a say. This was the vote for the country’s head of state, the President of the Republic, who can be any Italian aged 50 or over with full political and civil rights. The election was carried out by the 630 members of the Italian Chamber of Deputies, the 321 senators, as well as 58 great electors nominated by regional councils.[1] Candidates for the presidency need a two-thirds majority in the first three rounds and an absolute majority from the fourth onwards with the winner obtaining a seven-year mandate.[2] In Italy, the head of state is a mainly ceremonial role that involves guaranteeing that the constitution is respected and acts as the link between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of power. However, more importantly, he/she is empowered to appoint the Prime Minister and lead the army in times of war or national emergencies.[3] In addition, the President can dissolve parliament, block government proposals put forward after a parliamentary election and send a draft bill back to the MPs if deemed unconstitutional or not properly funded. [4] Hence, whoever has this job can have a significant influence on Italy’s domestic politics. For instance, in 2018 the incumbent President Sergio Mattarella refused to approve the finance minister proposed by the populist Five Star Movement and the far-right League, Paolo Savona, due to the nominee’s eurosceptic stances, which almost triggered a political crisis.[5] Later, in early 2021, Mattarella did not allow early parliamentary elections to be held after the government headed by Italy’s former prime minister Giuseppe Conte fell, due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.[6]

Normally, there are no official candidates for the presidency since all ballots are secret, but this year there were a few contenders, one of which was the scandal-ridden former premier Silvio Berlusconi.[7] He was the candidate from the centre-right bloc, which includes his party Forza Italia and the League, but just before the first voting round on 24th January 2022, he withdrew his bid for the role, stating that the current Italian prime minister, Mario Draghi, should remain in his post until the end of the parliamentary term in 2023. This is a reference to the fact that the former European Central Bank chief who now runs the country was depicted as another potential candidate. He was not explicit about his intentions, but he made allusions that he was willing to take up the vacant position. However, as analysts have highlighted, his departure would have meant political upheaval that could have resulted in an early parliamentary election or the appointment of a new head of government.[8] Both scenarios were problematic for the broad coalition that supports Draghi’s premiership comprising Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, centre-left parties, the Five Star Movement and some independent lawmakers. These forces are bound together by the necessity to manage the 209 billion-euro EU funds donated to Italy to facilitate its recovery from the pandemic.[9] The option of holding a snap parliamentary election may have been simpler, but it was less likely to occur since it would not benefit anyone, except for the right-wing opposition group Brothers of Italy which is the second party in Italy according to the latest polls with 19.3 percent support. In addition, there is the issue related to the management of the EU funds, the COVID-19 crisis and the need to adopt a new electoral law after a recent cut in the number of parliamentarians from 945 to 600. The second scenario of having a new technocratic or political government was also a dilemma for the ruling coalition because there is no guarantee that its majority would remain stable, given that the League leader Matteo Salvini wants to return to his previous job as Minister of the Interior (a position he held in 2018-19) after the presidential election, coupled with the fact that in the run-up to the 2023 parliamentary ballot the main parties will want to keep the distance between each other.[10]

At the time of writing, Mattarella has been re-elected as President. Although he had rejected the idea of serving again, the governing parties were converging towards giving him a second term, mainly because they were worried about potential political chaos if they failed to nominate a successor.[11] Allegedly, Draghi persuaded the old-new head of state to stay on for the sake of stability and consequently lobbied party leaders to acquiesce to this idea.[12] This proves that there is a tendency among Italian politicians to select someone who can be a stabilising force. Mattarella is seen as a safe choice due to his widespread public approval. In a recent poll, 50 percent of Italians said they would prefer for him to have a second mandate.[13] His return to the post is another victory for Italian institutionalism, i.e. a political framework that prioritises stability within the state and its institutions.[14]

What is really missing in the narrative is the fact that opinion polls show that most Italians are in favour of a popularly-elected head of state. There are three key reasons why the President of the Republic is chosen by parliament. Firstly, those who drafted Italy’s republican constitution after World War Two wanted to ensure that a dictator like Benito Mussolini would not be in charge.[15] Secondly, to prevent the selection of someone who would oppose the will of the parliament. Lastly, to guarantee that whoever is the President can fulfil his/her role with the necessary tranquillity and autonomy.[16] In recent times there have been calls for a popular election of the head of state. The Italian Right has made them its pièce de resistance since the 1980s, exemplified by last year’s launch of a petition by the Brothers of Italy for such a reform, backed by the other right-wing parties and figures, including Salvini and Berlusconi.[17] The same party tabled a legislative proposal on the reform after the chaotic re-election of Mattarella.[18] There were similar proposals along the same lines in 2018 from lawmakers of the centre-left Partito Democratico who wanted a head of state chosen by the people who could be younger than 50 and have a maximum of two terms in office.[19] As a matter of fact, surveys have revealed that supporters of the centre-right coalition are largely in favour of a directly-elected President, followed by the Five Star Movement electorate and even left-wing/centre-left voters, although with reduced percentages. This is partially due to the ‘personalisation’ of Italian politics in which party leaders, especially populist ones, are the reference points.[20]

The belief that the Italian people should choose the President has been legitimised by the inability of the political class to find a respectable successor to Mattarella without taking any risks. Indeed, a direct election of the highest political position in the country would simplify such a process. How can this work in practice? Italy can follow the examples of other parliamentary republics in which the head of state is voted by the citizenry, namely Austria, Finland, Portugal and Slovakia. In these countries there is a two-round majoritarian system. If no presidential candidate receives an absolute majority in the first round, then there is a run-off between the two leading contenders. The main advantage of this system is that voters can choose minority candidates in the first round and subsequently select their least disfavoured preference in the second if their first choice did not succeed. It also allows the president to gain a personal mandate separate from that of the parliamentary majority.[21]

Critics would argue that this might entice the winning candidate to pursue a more active role in the political process. Moreover, an overtly political election campaign might undermine the impartiality of the head of state.[22] However, for Italy these arguments are invalid. Italian Presidents are known for being anything but neutral and their powers have increased substantially in recent decades. Mattarella’s rejection of Savona’s nomination as economy minister due to the latter’s criticisms of the Eurozone is an example of the country’s “de facto presidentialism”.[23] Furthermore, the current process of parliament appointing the president is already divisive, as seen by the recent election in which the ruling coalition now appears weaker and more disunited.[24] A direct ballot would ensure that Italy will have a head of state with popular legitimacy who will, at least in theory, follow the wishes of the electorate, in contrast to parliament and the political parties, which Italians see as the most corrupt institutions in the country according to Transparency International.[25]

In short, having a popularly-elected President would be a step towards making Italy’s governing bodies more accountable and less prone to cross-party conflicts. However, in order to achieve this goal, there needs to be a constitutional reform that should be approved by parliament and, if necessary, by a referendum.[26] Most importantly, there needs to be a strong mass political will to put forward such a change which, if implemented, could be an opportunity to restore faith in Italy’s democratic institutions.


[1] Chiara Pizzimenti, “Come si elegge il presidente della Repubblica,” accessed January 15, 2022, https://www.vanityfair.it/article/come-si-elegge-il-presidente-della-repubblica.

[2] Thibault Spirlet, “Italy’s parliament set to vote for new president on January 24,” accessed January 15, 2022, https://www.politico.eu/article/italy-parliament-president-election-2022-sergio-mattarella-mario-draghi/.

[3] Andrea Carlo, “Silvio Berlusconi and the mystery of Italy’s presidential election,” accessed January 15, 2022, https://www.euronews.com/2022/01/14/silvio-berlusconi-and-the-mystery-of-italy-s-presidential-election.

[4] Corinne Deloy, “Who will succeed Sergio Mattarella as President of the Italian Republic?” accessed January 15, 2022, https://www.robert-schuman.eu/en/eem/1947-who-will-succeed-sergio-mattarella-as-president-of-the-italian-republic.

[5] Angela Giuffrida, Stephanie Kirchgaessner, and Jon Henley, “New elections loom in Italy amid calls for Mattarella to be impeached,” accessed January 16, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/may/27/italys-pm-designate-giuseppe-conte-fails-to-form-populist-government.

[6] Deloy, “Who will succeed Sergio Mattarella as President of the Italian Republic?”

[7] Angela Giuffrida, “Italians fear return of instability if Mario Draghi quits to become president,” accessed January 16, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/dec/26/italians-fear-return-of-instability-if-mario-draghi-quits-to-become-president.

[8] Wanted in Rome, “Berlusconi drops bid to be elected as president of Italy,” accessed January 26, 2022, https://www.wantedinrome.com/news/berlusconi-drops-bid-to-be-elected-as-president-of-italy.html.

[9] Deloy, “Who will succeed Sergio Mattarella as President of the Italian Republic?”

[10] Tommaso Coluzzi, “Cosa succede al governo se Mario Draghi diventa Presidente della Repubblica,” accessed January 27, 2022, https://www.fanpage.it/politica/cosa-succede-se-mario-draghi-diventa-presidente-della-repubblica/amp/.

Giacomo Andreoli, “Sondaggi politici, Pd sempre più primo partito: staccati Lega e Fratelli d’Italia,” accessed January 27, 2022, https://www.fanpage.it/politica/sondaggi-politici-pd-sempre-piu-primo-partito-staccati-lega-e-fratelli-ditalia/.

[11] AFP, “Italy averts political chaos as President Sergio Mattarella re-elected,” accessed February 1, 2022, https://www.thelocal.it/20220129/italy-averts-political-chaos-as-president-sergio-mattarella-re-elected/.

[12] Hannah Roberts, “Sergio Mattarella — Italy’s captive president,” accessed February 1, 2022, https://www.politico.eu/article/sergio-mattarella-italy-captive-president/.

[13] Giacomo Andreoli, “Sondaggi Quirinale, gli italiani non vogliono Draghi al Colle e sperano ancora nel Mattarella bis,” accessed January 27, 2022, https://www.fanpage.it/politica/sondaggi-politici-gli-italiani-non-vogliono-draghi-al-quirinale-e-sperano-ancora-nel-mattarella-bis/.

[14] Paolo Gerbaudo, “The Rise of the Technocrats Has Pushed Italian Democracy Deeper into Crisis,” accessed January 27, 2022, https://jacobinmag.com/2022/01/mario-draghi-presidential-election-populism-institutionalism-italy/.

[15] Deloy, “Who will succeed Sergio Mattarella as President of the Italian Republic?”

Italpress, “Due italiani su tre vogliono l'elezione diretta del capo dello Stato,” accessed January 27, 2022, https://www.iltempo.it/italpress/2022/01/26/news/due-italiani-su-tre-vogliono-l-elezione-diretta-del-capo-dello-stato-30237853/.

[16] Andrea Carlo, “Explained: The mystery and quirks of Italy’s presidential election,” accessed January 31, 2022, https://www.euronews.com/2022/01/24/silvio-berlusconi-and-the-mystery-of-italy-s-presidential-election.

[17] Francesco Storace, “È l'ora del presidenzialismo: il presidente sia eletto dal popolo,” accessed January 31, 2022, https://www.iltempo.it/politica/2022/01/03/news/presidenzialismo-italia-riforma-costituzione-presidente-repubblica-eletto-popolo-storace-29972090/.

Il Tempo, “L'annuncio di Berlusconi: "Firmerò la petizione di FdI per l'elezione diretta del capo dello Stato,” accessed January 31, 2022, https://www.iltempo.it/politica/2021/12/07/news/annuncio-silvio-berlusconi-firmero-petizione-fdi-elezione-diretta-capo-stato-atreju-centrodestra-29714113/.

Antonio Rapisarda, “Far tornare grande l’Italia con l’elezione diretta del Presidente della Repubblica,” accessed January 31, 2022, https://www.lavocedelpatriota.it/far-tornare-grande-litalia-con-lelezione-diretta-del-presidente-della-repubblica/.

[18] Annalisa Girardi, “Fratelli d’Italia lancia la raccolta firme per l’elezione diretta del presidente della Repubblica,” accessed February 12, 2022, https://www.fanpage.it/politica/fratelli-ditalia-lancia-la-raccolta-firme-per-lelezione-diretta-del-presidente-della-repubblica/.

[19] Luca Iacovacci, “Non solo Meloni: chi vuole il presidenzialismo,” accessed February 12, 2022, https://www.publicpolicy.it/non-solo-meloni-chi-vuole-il-presidenzialismo-94367.html.