Meloni’s radical plan: rewriting Italy’s post-fascist constitution

The prime minister says the current system leads to unstable governments. Opponents say her plan would weaken parliament and the president

Inside the museum that holds the Ara Pacis, a marble altar celebrating the peace and prosperity brought by the 40-year reign of Ancient Rome’s first emperor, Augustus, a group of prominent Italian business people were recently reflecting on the current state of the country.

The assembled entrepreneurs and executives – supporters of a fledgling civil society movement called Io Cambio, or I Change – lamented the heavy toll that chronic political instability had taken on contemporary Italy’s prospects and international credibility.

In their formal discussions, and over sparkling wine, cheese and olives on the rooftop afterwards, they diagnosed what they see as the problem: Italy’s constitution, written after the second World War and the fall of Benito Mussolini’s fascist dictatorship, was no longer fit for purpose. An overhaul was needed if Italy is to deliver stronger governments capable of tackling the country’s economic and social woes, they said.

“We hope for a reform of our institutions – that is, a new form of government,” Io Cambio’s co-founder, Nicola Drago, the fourth-generation scion of an industrial dynasty, told participants. “The most important thing is that there are stable and effective governments that can do their job.”


Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni is also focused these days on how Italy’s postwar political system – notorious for its succession of short-lived ruling coalitions and intense palace intrigue – is failing, in her view, to deliver for its citizens.

Now, in what is likely to be one of the biggest battles of her political career, Meloni has unveiled plans for a contentious constitutional overhaul that she calls “the mother of all reforms”, one she claims will deliver political stability. To pull it off, she will need the support of influential citizens such as the supporters of Io Cambio to overcome what is likely to be fierce resistance to her plans.

At the heart of Meloni’s proposal is giving Italian voters the ability to directly elect prime ministers for five-year terms, ostensibly reducing the office’s vulnerability to the type of parliamentary scheming, rebellions and desertions behind the premature demise of numerous past governments.

For me, the important thing is to be able to bring home this reform that in my heart I consider the most important legacy I can leave to Italy

—  Giorgia Meloni

Meloni contends that establishing the “premierato” – the elected prime minister – would end the revolving door at Palazzo Chigi, their official residence in Italy, which has had 68 governments, most lasting an average of just over a year, since 1946.

Longer, more secure tenures, she says, will give future leaders both the clout and time to tackle Italy’s big policy challenges, from its heavy debt burden and chronically sluggish economic growth to a deepening demographic crisis.

“We want to take advantage of the stability of this government to give Italians a reform that will allow them to choose who is going to govern them and allow the ones chosen by Italians to have five years to realise their programme,” Meloni said at the end of last year in a social media video explaining her proposal.

But in its attempt to boost stability and democratic accountability, the constitutional changes will put constraints on the ability of Italian presidents, the head of state, to serve as institutional guardrails against the impulses of populist politicians or restore stability and market confidence, as they have done at several critical junctures in the past.

The new rules would strip the president – chosen by legislators and other designated officials in an opaque process likened to a papal conclave – of the power to invite whomever they deem fit to lead the country at times of crisis, as President Sergio Mattarella did in tapping Mario Draghi, the former European Central Bank president, in 2021 at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.

That erosion of presidential discretion, mainly used at times of acute political discord, is an unsettling prospect for some Italians, who have largely supported past presidential interventions that have helped to set the country on the right course with the appointment of apolitical, technocratic governments.

“The reforms are not touching the constitutional articles concerning the powers of the president of the republic, but they are emptying it from inside,” argues former constitutional court president Marta Cartabia, who served as justice minister in Draghi’s government. “We will diminish a figure that has been one of the successful institutions and proved to be very useful in stabilising the country.”

Winning support for this political redesign, which already has the approval of cabinet and is being scrutinised and debated by a senate committee, will be the toughest challenge Meloni has faced since entering politics in 1992 as a teenage activist with the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement, founded by Mussolini’s surviving allies.

Though her right-wing coalition has a solid parliamentary majority, constitutional amendments must be approved either by two-thirds of the lawmakers in both houses of parliament or a majority of voters in a national referendum. Neither will be easy to obtain.

Yet Meloni, who has shown impressive political acumen in propelling her 12-year-old Brothers of Italy party from the political margins to the fulcrum of power, appears ready to stake her personal capital on succeeding where others have failed by reworking Italy’s system.

“For me, the important thing is to be able to bring home this reform that in my heart I consider the most important legacy I can leave to Italy,” Meloni said in a TV interview last week. “This is not a reform about me, this is already a stable government, this is a reform about what happens next.”

Fraught climate

Italy’s constitution was written shortly after the end of the second World War and the onset of the Cold War – with the US monitoring closely. Memories of Mussolini’s fascist regime loomed large as did speculation that Italy’s Communist Party, the largest in western Europe at the time, could come to power.

In that fraught climate, Italy’s constitutional drafters devised a strong parliamentary system, with a pre-eminent legislature, a weaker executive and a collaborative lawmaking process. At the pinnacle was the president, conceived as a widely respected, unifying figure with sufficient moral authority to arbitrate disputes and keep the country on track.

Opposition parties have expressed alarm at Meloni’s proposed constitutional redesign, with Elly Schlein, leader of the centre-left Democratic Party, calling the premierato the “dangerous” result of a long-standing infatuation with the idea of a strong leader among the Italian right.

She says that the framework, if adopted, would undermine parliamentary authority, concentrate power in the hands of a single individual and undermine delicate checks and balances.

“In this country, we have already seen the model of one chief in command, with no limit from the parliament or the constitution, and it has not gone well,” says Schlein, referring to Mussolini. “I don’t see any reason to go in this direction. Democracy is not voting every five years for a chief with no controls.”

Historically, Italian voters have been wary of tampering with the country’s fundamental political architecture, rejecting a significant constitutional overhaul promoted by prime minister Silvio Berlusconi in 2006 and then another complicated set of amendments driven by prime minister Matteo Renzi, then the Democratic Party leader, a decade later.

Yet analysts say Meloni appears to have learned from the failures of her predecessors and could have a fair shot at securing popular support for her own amendments, which she is presenting as a few small changes to strengthen government’s accountability to the public.

“The central concept – that the government should reflect the will of the people – is simple and popular,” says Lorenzo Pregliasco, founder of YouTrend, a Turin-based political polling agency. “If the referendum campaign was framed around this, it would have good chances of winning.”

The battle over the premierato – which many expect will go full force after June’s European parliamentary elections – could make or break Meloni’s emerging reputation as a shrewd judge of the national mood and an emerging power broker on the European stage.

But whether a directly elected prime minister within a parliamentary system would in reality help end years of political turmoil and misgovernance is a matter of fierce debate within Italy.

The concept has only ever been tried in one other country: Israel, which in 1992 changed its basic law to create directly elected prime ministers. The aim was to boost stability and reduce political horse-trading in an electoral system in which it was difficult for any one party to secure a clear majority.

But the experiment was abandoned after less than a decade, following three elections in which the popularly chosen prime ministers still struggled to forge coherent, durable governing coalitions in parliaments that were fragmented, or dominated, by rival parties.

Elisabetta Casellati, Italy’s minister of institutional reform, says Rome has learned from the Israeli experience and will avoid such outcomes by requiring prime ministerial candidates to be directly linked to parties’ electoral coalitions.

As the Meloni government’s proposal stands, elected premiers would require the confidence of a parliamentary majority. In the event of resignation or a no-confidence vote, the prime minister could be replaced once by another lawmaker from the same majority. If that alternative premier loses support, parliament would have to be dissolved and a fresh election called.

“I call it the premiership Italian-style,” Casellati explains, on the sidelines of the Io Cambio function where she had come to present the plan and seek support. “Why should we be afraid of novelty?”

Chronic instability

Some academics warn that Meloni’s proposal could still inadvertently lead to greater political turmoil or gridlock.

They foresee the risk of even more frequent parliamentary elections than in the past when several governments, and even alternative coalitions, have emerged from the same parliament.

“In many European countries we are witnessing parliamentary systems more and more affected by instability,” says Cristina Fasone, professor of comparative public law at Rome’s Luiss university. “My fear is that we may have a similar dynamic in which the direct election of the prime minister in the end loses its substance because we are constantly re-electing parliaments.”

Others believe that the root of Italy’s chronic instability lies not in constitutional design flaws but in a highly fragmented party system, which leads to fractious coalition governments that collapse due to ideological incoherence or personal rivalries.

“The main problem is the fragility of the coalitions,” says Cartabia, Draghi’s former justice minister. “If we really want to find a way to bring stability, what we need is not to reinforce the leader, but rather to reinforce the strength of the coalitions and their capacity of governing together.”

Daniele Albertazzi, a professor of political science at the University of Surrey, says the reforms may not curb deeply entrenched patterns of political behaviour, given that “leaders of parties have a strong incentive to cause problems for their own side” as they vie with ideological allies for popularity among a fickle electorate.

Still, some in the business community are convinced that the constitution diffuses power too widely, which paralyses decision-making. In Italy, “nobody wins, nobody loses and nobody rules,” says Io Cambio’s Drago.

The president’s role is particularly sensitive. More than a ceremonial figurehead, Italy’s heads of state wield genuine powers: the right to name prime ministers, to veto ministerial appointments and return legislation to parliament for reconsideration. When leaders lose support or coalitions collapse, the president decides whether to invite the formation of an alternative government or dissolve parliament and call fresh elections.

From the lavish Quirinale Palace in Rome – erstwhile home of popes, kings and recent Italian presidents – they have used these discretionary powers in recent years to steady Italy at moments of acute strain.

During the euro zone sovereign debt crisis, president Giorgio Napolitano helped orchestrate the 2011 exit of premier Berlusconi amid intense pressure on Italian sovereign bonds. He then appointed former EU commissioner Mario Monti to restore market confidence.

In 2018, incumbent president Mattarella rejected an attempt to install a prominent Eurosceptic as economy minister. Three years later, when a coalition government collapsed in 2021 amid an outcry over its management of the Covid pandemic, Mattarella pulled Draghi from retirement to right the country’s troubled vaccination drive and steer Italy out of a pandemic-induced recession.

The majority of Italians will understand that they have the historic opportunity to make Italy into a mature democracy

While professional politicians have often chafed at such interventions, Italians have viewed these actions more favourably, and presidents typically enjoy much higher approval ratings than elected leaders.

In a recent poll by YouTrend, 62 per cent of respondents expressed confidence in Mattarella, compared with just 36 per cent in Meloni, 37 per cent for former prime minister Giuseppe Conte, leader of the Five Star Movement, and 27 per cent for the Democratic Party’s Schlein.

Given this public sentiment, the government is simultaneously downplaying how the reforms would impact the president’s powers while being unambiguous in saying it would bring an end to technocratic governments. “The head of state is, and will remain, the guarantor of national unity with powers as he has today,” Casellati adds.

In her social media post, Meloni expressed confidence about achieving her goal. “It will be up to the citizens to support this revolution or not,” she said. “I am sure the majority of Italians will understand that they have the historic opportunity to make Italy into a mature democracy.”

As for Io Cambio, the group has not endorsed the government’s proposed constitutional reform. But its leaders are closely monitoring the process as the bill makes its way through parliament. If they decide it is beneficial, the group says it would help to mobilise public support if it reaches the referendum process.

Drago, now the vice-president of the venture capital arm of his family’s business group, admits that he has been grateful in the past for presidential interventions, but says the time has come to end the head of state’s “paternalistic” role.

“If you have a great father that steps in and always fixes the problem, it produces a son that doesn’t take on his responsibilities,” Drago argues. “Change is always scary. But I’d rather entrust the PM, and allow him or her to make mistakes, but make [them] feel responsible and accountable for what they do.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024

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