Selena Grimaldi – The President of Italy: from veto player to first in command?

This is a guest post by Selena Grimaldi at the University of Padova

Foto Selena

In this post Selena Grimaldi summarises her article ‘The President during the so-called Second Republic: from veto player to first in command?‘, Contemporary Italian Politics, (2015), DOI: 10.1080/23248823.2014.1002247

This paper is part of a special issue for the review “Contemporary Italian Politics” edited by myself and Elisabetta De Giorgi (Nova University) on the transformation of the Italian political system in the last 20 years.

Starting from Arend Lijphart’s masterpiece (1999) we try to (re)locate Italy in the context of contemporary democracies. More specifically, we analyze those aspects which have changed from the 1990s on, namely the reforms of the electoral system, the transformations in the party system, and the evolution of the relationship between the government and parliamentary opposition. Furthermore, we explore the variation in the distribution of decision-making power among national, supranational and subnational (regional) bodies and the new role of the President of the Republic as an increasingly important counterbalancing power.

My piece, in particular, is an attempt to consider presidential involvement in the decision-making process and whether it marks a change from the consensual model of democracy to the majoritarian one. Following this path, the first point is to understand whether the activity of presidents in parliamentary systems can be added as an explanatory variable in assessing a possible change from one model of democracy to the other. In fact, the role of heads of state in parliamentary democracies is not taken into consideration by Lijphart, even though recent studies have shown that they can be treated as checks and balances as in the case of presidents in presidential systems (Nikolenyi 2011; Jacobs 2012).

As many scholars have suggested, I tried to combine Lijphart’s and Tsebelis’ (2002) approaches to support the claim that presidents in parliamentary democracies should be included in the second dimension of the Lijphartian scheme when they prove to be real institutional veto players. According to Tsebelis (2002), there must be agreement on the part of a number of actors – or veto players – for a policy to change, and therefore he distinguishes between two types of veto player: the institutional and the partisan.

Italy is not the only parliamentary democracy in which the Constitution gives the President certain countervailing powers to the government or parliament and more specifically it is not the only case in which presidents have actually influenced the policy process. In Germany, for instance, some presidents have intervened in the policy process both with veto powers and with moral suasion (Grimaldi 2012). As a consequence, the president in parliamentary democracies can be an institutional veto player, despite not being a collective complex institutional body like a constitutional court, and despite the absence of complex constitutional features such as federalism and bicameralism. Moreover, in line with Tsebelis’ findings, I argue that when the president acts as a veto player influencing policymaking, the democratic system is pushed closer to consensualism.

However, during Italy’s Second Republic, the President has not just been an active countervailing actor to the government, contributing to dividing and spreading power, but he has stood in for the government in situations of crisis and deadlock, becoming a sort of deputy chairman. Indeed, the President has contributed to enlarging the role of the executive more than the legislature in Italy with the formation of technocratic cabinets, and he has sometimes taken or influenced foreign policy decisions which, strictly, should be in the government’s domain. Therefore, when the President acts as a decision-maker or deputy chairman, Italian democracy is pushed closer towards majoritarianism.

The second important step is to divide presidential powers in two categories in order to verify when and to what extent Presidents of the Second Republic act both as veto players and as deputy chairmen. This distinction comprises both formal powers – clearly identifiable in the Constitution – and informal powers, which are linked to praxis and which have become more visible and frequent in recent years, such as moral suasion and media surveillance.

Moreover, in order to explain the enlargement of Presidential powers from the 1990s on, I have considered five variables: two systemic variables, namely the power of the parties and the strength of the cabinets, and two reputational variables, i.e. the level of presidents’ public support and their international networks, and the level of approval of the PMs.

At this point, I can say that my initial expectations are confirmed: presidents act as deputy chairmen especially when parties and cabinets are weak, but they act as veto players when cabinets are stronger and relatively stable. However, this is not the whole story.

On the one hand, It is true that when parties and/or cabinets were weak, presidents acted as deputy chairmen by appointing PMs or deciding whether or not to dissolve Parliament, as in the cases of Prime Ministers Amato, Ciampi and Dini, appointed by President Scalfaro; and Prime Minister Monti was appointed by President Napolitano. However, their capacity to make decisions relating to government formation, notably by suggesting certain ministers, and foreign policy also relies on other factors and particularly on their public support and international networks. The appointment of the Minister of International Affairs Ruggiero (2001) suggested by Ciampi and that of the Minister of Economy Padoan (2013) suggested by Napolitano are the clearest examples. In both cases, presidential influence was effective because of the presidents’ high levels of public support. In other words, the government could not oppose the suggestion of such popular Presidents. Moreover, presidents are able to directly influence foreign policy when they have strong domestic support and when they are assured of international recognition through their foreign contacts. This was precisely the case of Ciampi in dealing with the Iraq war and that of Napolitano with the Libyan war.

On the other hand, presidents act as veto players especially in opposition to strong cabinets. Presidents use formal powers, notably vetoes on legislation, messages to the Chambers, and the authorisation of government decrees, to control the longer-lasting cabinets. However, informal powers such as moral suasion and media surveillance are linked to the personal capacities of each president, in particular their ability to build approval for themselves and their communication skills. Actually, Presidents were effective in using informal powers when their popular support was relatively high.

My research points out that there is no one clear path followed by the Presidents of the Second Republic, and this makes it difficult to say if they further strengthened the consensus or the majoritarian principle. Both Scalfaro and Napolitano acted as a veto player and as deputy chairman, whereas Ciampi was the only one who mainly acted as a veto player and consequently mainly strengthened the consensus principle. Indeed, not only did Ciampi use formal and informal powers to control government policies and actions, but he also chose constitutional judges and life senators who could credibly oppose the government in office. However, his role of deputy chairman was not completely negated as he successfully influenced the nomination of Minister Ruggiero and an important foreign-policy decision in the Iraq war.

In conclusion, the involvement of the President in the decision-making process is an important factor in explaining the apparent change from a consensual to a majoritarian model of democracy in Italy, even though this inclusion may complicate the picture as presidential influence is not linear in pushing democracy towards the consensual or majoritarian side. The President’s intervention contributes to making Italy a mix, as certain decisions relating to government formation and foreign policy reinforce the majoritarian principle, whereas the president’s controlling actions reinforce the consensus principle.


Grimaldi S. (2012), I presidenti nelle forme di governo. Tra Costituzione, partiti e carisma, Roma, Carocci.

Lijphart A (1999), Patterns of Democracy. Government Forms and Performance in Thirty-Six Countries, New Haven-London, Yale University Press.

Jacobs K. (2012), The more vetoes the better? The ambiguous relationship between veto players and democratic reform in consensus democracies. Working group on democracy. Innovative democracy working paper series Vol. 1, issue 5.

Nikolenyi C. (2011), When Electoral Reform fails: The Stability of Proportional Representation in Post-Communist Democracy, «West European Politics», vol. 34, n.3, pp. 607-25.

Tsebelis G. (2002), Veto Players. How political institutions work, Princeton, Princeton University Press.

Selena Grimaldi is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Padova. Her research interest is in Leadership Studies in Comparative Perspective, with particular attention to the role of presidents in parliamentary democracies. She has published several book chapters and articles on this theme, including the most recent: ‘The President during the so-called Second Republic: from veto player to first in command?’, in Contemporary Italian Politics, vol. 7, no. 1, 2015.

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