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Government, Politics and Legal Systems for Expats in Italy

Author: Jim Newham
Submitted: April 2014

Government and Politics

Italy is a democratic parliamentary republic, with a constitution that guarantees the rights and freedoms typical of a Western democracy. The head of state is the president, who serves a seven-year term. To be elected, a presidential candidate must obtain a two-thirds majority of all the members of parliament plus a total of 58 regional delegates (one for Valle d’Aosta, three for all the other regions.) The current president is Giorgio Napolitano. He became the first president to run into a second term in 2013, and has now been president for nearly eight years.

Though the role of president is restricted in Italy, it is more than merely ceremonial. The president is responsible for ensuring that the constitution is upheld; he or she appoints the prime minister, and has the power to dissolve parliament if the stability of the government is compromised (this has happened plenty of times in Italy.) The president also represents Italy on official state occasions and ratifies international treaties. He or she can also withhold assent to a bill that has been passed by parliament – but only on the first time it is passed.

The head of government is the president of the Council of Ministers (presidente del consiglio dei ministri), though the title is usually translated as ‘prime minister’ in English. The current prime minister is Matteo Renzi, who acceded to the post in February 2014. As the official title suggests, the prime minister is leader of the Council of Minsters or Cabinet. He or she nominates the ministers in the Council for presidential approval, and directs them in the pursuit of their duties.

The Italian legislature, the parliament, is bicameral. The lower house is the Chamber of Deputies, which consists of 630 members, known as deputies, all of whom must be aged 25 or over. The upper house is the Senate of the Republic, consisting of 315 senators. In addition, there is a handful of life senators (currently five), appointed by the president, including all living former presidents and certain other dignitaries. The president of the Senate deputises for the president if the latter is unable to fulfil his or her job. The minimum age to be a senator is 40.

Both deputies and senators serve five-year terms and are elected by means of universal suffrage using proportional representation. Minimum voting ages are 18 for the Chamber of Deputies and 25 for the Senate. The number of seats allocated is related to the total number of votes cast. Bonus seats are awarded to the winning party to help insure that a majority is achieved.

The two houses are equal in status. Either house can propose bills; for a bill to pass, it must obtain a majority in both houses. Standing committees assist with the processing of the legislature by debating and passing some bills.

Due to the PR system (and extreme factious tendencies), there is such a bewildering number of political parties in Italy that they have to band together to form coalitions. At present, there is the Centre-Left Coalition and a Centre-Right Coalition. In addition, there are many non-aligned parties.

Five of Italy’s 20 regions have a limited form of autonomy: Valle d’Aosta, Trentino-Alto Adige, Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, Sicily and Sardinia. These regions effectively have home rule, with powers to legislate over several major areas.

Legal Systems

The roots of the current legal system go back more than 2,000 years to that of Ancient Rome. From this basis in Roman law, the Italian legal system has been modified by the Napoleonic Code and later adjustments. It is therefore a purely civil law system. Though the judiciary is constitutionally separate from the other branches of government, there have been times when undue pressure has been brought to bear upon judges.

The highest court in the land is the Constitutional Court, which delivers judgements on the constitutionality of laws and resolves conflicts that are in the national interest. The court consists of 15 judges, who have a fixed term of office of nine years. For any matters not related to the constitution, the highest court is the Supreme Court of Cassation; any appeals requiring a judgement on a point of law will ultimately be referred to this body. Below this court are the 26 assize courts of appeal.

Court procedure is unusual for a civil law country in that the adversarial, rather than inquisitorial system is used. The judicial system suffers badly from an enormous backlog of cases, and from corruption, especially in those areas contaminated by the mafia.

 

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