This is a guest post by Mauro Tebaldi, Associate Professor in the Department of Political Sciences, Communication Sciences and Information Technologies, University of Sassari
This post examines the role of the former President of the Italian Republic, Giorgio Napolitano, in times of political and economic crisis, with particular regard to the period 2010- 2014. During this period, Napolitano (the first President of the Italian Republic to have been elected twice, in 2006 and 2013) was a key player in seeking solutions to the economic and institutional emergencies that governmental institutions and political parties were unable to find. This active role of the President of the Republic has been the subject of contrasting assessments, in both political debate and public opinion, as well as in the academic literature. Some consider the behaviour of the Head of State constitutionally legitimate and politically appropriate. Others found it constitutionally illegitimate and politically unwise.
This post aims to explain: a) why the former President of the Italian Republic tended to expand his powers; b) whether and to what extent the behaviour of the President exceeded his constitutionally prescribed role; and c) whether this presidential behaviour has protected or weakened Italian democracy.
In his capacity as Head of State, the Italian President has a number of powers that are not just symbolic or ceremonial in nature, but also endowed with high political relevance, such as the appointment of the prime minister and the early dissolution of parliament. From its earliest beginnings, the actions of the Italian presidents have shown great versatility and flexibility. They adapted to the different seasons of the Italian political system relying on a laconic constitutional discipline. So, without any substantial changes to the regulatory source from which they drew their legitimacy, Italian presidents have sometimes deeply affected the evolution of the Italian parliamentary system, extending their powers to the highest degree, while on other occasions they have remained on the sidelines of the decision-making arenas. These differences have led some scholars to talk of an ‘accordion’ of presidential powers, which can expand or contract. In certain circumstances and under certain conditions, the poorly defined constitutional powers of the President of the Republic may grow to impose his will on other bodies of the parliamentary circuit – the assemblies and the government – or on other political actors such as the parliamentary majority or the opposition parties. The underlying hypothesis is that the movements of the ‘presidential accordion’ depend on the strength of the party system. The more the party system is able to produce stable and cohesive majorities, the less space there will be for wide and autonomous use of powers by the President of the Republic during times of political crisis. When, on the other hand, the party system produces unstable and conflicting majorities, the President of the Republic will tend to intervene with broader powers and more autonomy in resolving the political crisis.
As we can see from the analysis of Napolitano’s presidencies in 2010-14, the role of the President grew dramatically when the crisis of the political parties made it impossible to form governments capable of dealing with the country’s financial and economic crisis. Napolitano extended his powers at the structural level in the sphere of politics, creating new procedures for government dissolution and formation. Of particular importance was his public announcement of Berlusconi’s resignation before the prime minister himself had announced it. In addition, he appointed Monti as Life Senator immediately before his appointment as prime minister. Still at the level of the political regime, Napolitano strongly defended some fundamental values of the Italian Republic, such as European Union membership.
There was a similar expansion of presidential powers at the level of political process. Examining the sphere of politics, the rise of the Monti government certainly was a procedural innovation, but, above all, it was a substantive choice of prime minister which Napolitano made by himself and forced the political parties to accept. Moreover, as Napolitano has openly acknowledged, the choice of Letta as the next prime minister was also autonomously decided by the president himself, and only weakly conditioned by the parties consulted. With regard to the sphere of policy, Napolitano played an important role constantly proposing institutional, constitutional and economic reforms to the government and political parties.
Apart from acting as a stimulus to the governments and their majorities, Napolitano continuously and personally monitored their work. Napolitano’s supervision of governmental activities and programmes from the end of 2010 until the beginning of 2014 applied to all the governments in power during this period (led by Berlusconi, Monti, Letta). This was necessary, since the domestic political context revealed the weakness of the parties in dealing with the country’s financial crisis and since the international economic institutions and the EU authorities had subjected Italy to very tight restrictions in the choice of its economic policies.
According to the theory of the ‘presidential accordion’, the role of Napolitano expanded when the political power of political parties and the government institution weakened. Eventually, he assumed the role of guardian for the functioning of the Italian parliamentary system. What is even more relevant, due to the constitutional and political sensitivity of the issue, is the analysis of the causal relationship between the Italian parliamentary system and the behaviour of the president.
Indeed, we can hypothesise that under certain conditions the trespassing of the Head of State into the government area may cause changes to the practices and substance of the parliamentary system. For example, this might occur when the majority that elected the Head of State coincides with that supporting the prime minister and his government, and both positions are held by leaders of the same coalition. Specifically, it might determine the transition from a model in which the Head of State and the cabinet are each potential veto players of one another, within a system of ‘separated institutions competing for shared powers’ to another model in which the president and the government merge in a system of ‘joined institutions sharing powers’. In a nutshell, it could give rise to a hybrid form of government, which would be much closer to a semi-presidential government than a parliamentary one.
In this regard, the expansion of the presidential role under Napolitano’s presidencies has been interpreted in different ways. Some authors describe it as a pathology of the Italian political system. For these authors, the behaviour of the president not only exceeds his constitutionally prescribed role, but also represents one of the main anomalies of Italian democracy. It entails some fundamental powers of government being assigned de facto to a guarantee institution, not accountable to the electorate, thereby weakening the quality of democratic government in Italy.
Other scholars emphasise that President Napolitano’s role fits into the physiology of the parliamentary government as designed by the Italian Constitution. Indeed, the flexibility given to the role of the president of the Republic can be regarded as a major instrument to resolve situations of institutional deadlock. From this perspective, the movements of the ‘presidential accordion’ becomes a key feature of Italian parliamentary government, enhancing the quality of democracy in terms of inter-institutional accountability when the weakness of the party system could block the formation of government or its functioning.
Our analysis suggests that President Napolitano acted like other presidents before him when the party system suffered similar issues and expanded his powers within the constitutional limits of the parliamentary form of government. He did so through an active role of stimulation, protection and guarantee towards the restoration of governmental and parliamentary functions. Within these constitutional limits, and with a personal style, Napolitano played a role that the political parties and their leaders could not perform. Rather than changing the features of the Italian parliamentary government and transforming it unlawfully into a semi-presidential government, Napolitano has confirmed that the role of the Head of State, with its capacity for expansion, is a key role strengthening the democratic parliamentary regime in times of grave crisis – particularly when the political system is simultaneously threatened by an exogenous crisis that forces the government to decide and an endogenous crisis that prevents it from taking decisions.
Mauro Tebaldi is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Sciences, Communication Sciences and Information Technologies, University of Sassari. His main research interests are political institutions, democratic theory and public policies.