This is a guest post by Selena Grimaldi, University of Padova. In this post she summarises her chapter ‘The Leadership Capital of Italian Presidents: The Politics of Constraint and Moral Suasion’ in the new volume ‘The Leadership Capital Index: A New Perspective on Political Leadership‘ (edited by Mark Bennister, Ben Worthy, and Paul ‘t Hart, Oxford University Press 2017).
Measuring leadership has primarily been a US-American concern, since its archetypical form of presidentialist government concentrates all executive functions in a single person, and also merges the duties of the Head of Government and of the Head of State in a single office. Indeed, the first attempt at ranking the leadership of presidents was made in 1948 by Arthur M. Schlesinger, surveying 55 scholars on several aspects of leadership of 29 US presidents.
Despite objections against the methodology of measurement, over recent decades it has been adopted in a number of Westminster democracies such as Canada, New Zeland, Australia and the UK. Recently, measuring leaders’ capabilities has become a concern also in consensual democracies as the importance of prime ministers has grown even in these contexts – so much so that scholars talk of the ‘presidentialization’ of parliamentary democracies. Irrespective of whether the presidentialization hypothesis can be considered confirmed, there is no doubt that since the 1990s Italian prime ministers have acquired a central role within the cabinet. However, the political science literature has so far failed to address sufficiently the fact that the prime minister is not the only political actor who gained power as a result of the presidentialization process. In fact, there is another actor who benefitted from it: the president of the Republic, who is the only real monocratic figure of the Italian political system.
So far, there has not been any attempt to rank presidents or prime ministers in Italy. This is most likely because both the head of state and the head of government are linked to the legacy of weak political actors preceding them. Indeed, during the so-called First Republic (1948-1993), presidents were considered as notaries who exercised passive oversight and prime ministers were definitely first among equals.
In the chapter summarized in this blog post I measured the leadership of Italian presidents rather than that of prime ministers because, to my knowledge, there is as of yet no ranking of any king for presidents of parliamentary republics. Moreover, I think it is useful to focus on these political figures which have too often been ignored by scholars, especially when their role has had a visible impact on the evolution of certain parliamentary democracies.
The Leadership Capital Index (LCI) was first conceptualised and applied to prime ministers (or directly elected presidents). However, it could be potentially also be adapted and applied to other kind of political leaders as it is based both on agency and personal appeal. For example, in the Italian case, presidential powers are not only institutional but take the least visible form of so-called moral suasion, i.e. where presidents influence, pressure, and persuade others based on their “neutrality” and personal appeal.
From a methodological point of view, the real challenge was to adapt the indicators used by Bennister et al. to the Italian context and to ‘institutionally’ constrained leaders. In particular, building on the three main dimensions (skills, relations and reputation) of the leadership capital index, I employed 12 indicators that produced a synthetic score ranging from from 11 to 54 points. Since the LCI requires a lot of soft measurements, another meaningful step was to develop a questionnaire regarding Italian presidents which was then proposed to a panel of scholars with a good knowledge of contemporary Italian politics.
The analysis shows that the leadership capital of the three presidents of the Second Republic included in the study varies from medium (Scalfaro) to high capital scores (Ciampi and Napolitano). The LCI allows us to drill into these assessments and see the individual strengths and weaknesses of each office holder within the confines of the office. Scalfaro’s strength in maintaining his capital stemmed predominantly from his political skills, Ciampi’s from his relations, and Napolitano’s through a combination of reputation and political skills. For example, Scalfaro’s longevity in politics allowed him to successfully face down attacks by PM Berlusconi and right-wing parties, but his capital was weakened by his lack of neutrality. Ciampi, buttressed by the bipartisan agreement that secured his election, used these founding relations to influence foreign policy and domestically pursue a popular re-discovery of the Italian founding myth. However, as a political outsider, he was unfamiliar with the complexity of the Italian party system. Napolitano defended presidential prerogatives, at times challenging the government and inviting parliament to follow particular points of view. However, from 2011 onwards, public trust began to decrease as he became more interventionist and more deeply enmeshed in domestic crises.
All three presidents blended old and new powers to build leadership capital. The three office holders all brought high levels of capital to the position that they had built up during their previous, often very extensive, political careers. The traditional characteristics of neutrality, peer support (from the Electoral College), and long political experience all provide capital, building skills, relations, and reputation. On top of this, the three successive presidents discovered and built new sources of power by cultivating popular support, using communication strategies and offering a coherent and powerful political vision. Within this general formal institutional strengthening, each president then acquired capital from slightly different areas: whether through their skills, relations, or reputation. It was this synthesis of old and new elements, institution and agency, that has made presidents more effective in the political arena and active in policy-making, especially in foreign policy and government formation.
However, the LCI does not solve all of the problems involved in assessing leadership, as it is necessarily a context-based concept. The added value of the LCI approach is that it allows the traceability of power over time, revealing how each president has built on others’ strengths but all have encountered similar limits: while Italian presidents can spend their capital in focused areas, too overt attempts to act politically can erode their capital by damaging their perceived neutrality and moral probity. The steady, increasingly upward trend of the Italian presidents’ leadership capital points not only to the importance of these institutional leaders within the Italian context during the Second Republic, but to their gradual learning of what their authority can and cannot be used for. The ongoing political crisis, and the relative loss of legitimacy in almost all other political bodies, has empowered Italian presidents, demonstrating how the environment can be key to understanding trajectory as well as to building and losing capital.
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