Reforming Symmetric Bicameralism

Strengthening the Prime Minister and Reforming ‘Symmetric Bicameralism’
In the first phase of the Republic (1946–93), the tenure of Italian prime
ministers was rather short (Hine 1993: ch. 7), although many of them were
given second chances.5 Furthermore, the party foundations of all these
governments remained essentially the same. Hence, one could legitimately
speak of governmental instability accompanied – possibly even sustained (or
made possible) – by coalitional stability, policy stability and, above all,
stability of ministerial personnel (Bull and Newell 1993; Pasquino 2002).
Prime ministerial authority over cabinet and government was weak, and
unable to respect article 95 of the Constitution which states that the Prime
Minister ‘conducts and is responsible for the general policy of the
government . . . promoting and coordinating the activity of Ministers’. A
strictly proportional electoral system, combined with anti-system parties at
each end of the spectrum (which had to be excluded from office) and a
strong centrist party, resulted in similar governing coalitions being formed,
but not on the basis of any direct expression of voters’ choice at the polls.
Parties did not produce concrete programmes for office, governments being
formed following intractable negotiations between the (same old) parties
over the allocation of ministries and state agencies after the election had
taken place, and in which the parties expressed their conditions for
participation. This meant that the Prime Minister had little control over his
ministers, who felt accountable to the parties that had secured their
appointment, with consequent little individual and collective ministerial
responsibility, and the parties themselves owed little institutional loyalty
to the Prime Minister. Most senior party leaders stayed outside the
government, delegating ministerial tasks to less powerful figures, thereby
keeping prime ministers and cabinets in a state of relative weakness: policies
were often agreed away from the formal arenas of government in periodic
‘majority summits’ (Criscitiello 1993). This also allowed the parties to bring
a government down at will and to distance themselves from unpopular
policies when it came to election time. In short, prime ministers resembled
‘mediators’ rather than ‘authoritative leaders’.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, therefore, the Italian Parliament has, with the
American Congress, been identified as an exception to the decline of
legislative power so noticeable in other Western democracies. In addition to
the party system (whose coalitional nature made it difficult for governments
to constrain parliament into a subordinate role) several institutional
Institutional Reforms in Italy 677
mechanisms have helped to reinforce legislative resistance to executive
dominance: ‘symmetric bicameralism’, where both houses have identical
legislative powers, making it difficult for a government to push through its
legislation; the secret ballot (abolished in 1988) which allowed deputies to
vote against their own government without being seen, and a law-making
capacity of parliamentary committees which undermines government
control over the legislative process. Even institutional features which had
been designed to strengthen a government’s hand in an emergency
situation – the power to issue decrees – became both a symptom of
government weakness (by the frequency of its use) and a further vehicle of
parliamentary control (through the clause that required parliamentary
approval of decrees within 60 days, meaning that parliament could refuse to
do so, constraining governments into repeatedly reissuing the same decrees).
Yet this is not to suggest that the Italian Parliament, as a legislature, has
exercised strict control over the executive. On the contrary, parliament has
been similarly fragmented and dominated by the parties, undermining
parliament’s ability to produce coherent legislation (or to aid such
legislation’s passage) and to exercise its watchdog function. So the absence
of cohesive coalitions sustaining government majorities was combined with
a relative weakness in the exercise of parliament’s accountability function –
in fairly stark contrast to the ‘Westminster model’. When parties withdrew
their support for a government, causing it to fall, it was usually as a result of
events occurring outside parliament (e.g. internal party struggle). Never did
a government fall as a result of a vote of no confidence, and rarely did
elections follow the collapse of a government; rather, the President would
find another Prime Minister and there would be a reshuffling of the parties
already in office – ‘peripheral turnover’. It could be argued, therefore, that
the role of parliament was, in fact, severely circumscribed: its power to
approve or dissolve a government through a vote of confidence was rarely
exercised; its role as an arena for the discussion of policy differences was
largely overlooked; and it failed to carry out effectively its role of control
and oversight of the executive.
One of the intentions of the promoters of the referendum that ended
proportionality in the electoral law in 1993 was to provide future stability
for governments throughout a parliamentary term. In this view, the voters
needed to bestow a mandate on the Prime Minister, and his replacement
through parliamentary manoeuvres should be impossible before the
completion of his term. Although not universally shared by all of the
supporters of electoral reform, the idea that governmental crises should
entail an early dissolution of parliament gained currency.
If that implied greater prime ministerial authority, then the second phase
of the Republic (post-1993) did, in fact, witness some changes in this regard,
albeit largely as a consequence of changes to the party system and an
increase in party cohesion (in terms of voting) that followed the electoral
reform (Newell 2000). Campus (2002) argues that the prime ministerial
678 M. Bull and G. Pasquino
experience of the 1990s witnessed a tension between the old model of prime
ministers as mediators and a new model of prime ministers as authoritative
leaders, suggesting the beginning of a transition from the former to the
latter. If so, it could be argued that Berlusconi’s second government pushed
Italy closer towards the new model than it had ever been before, but largely
on the basis of non-institutional factors: the strength of his majority, his
leadership of the largest component of his coalition and therefore his own
undisputed leadership over that coalition, and, finally, his decision to
include all the coalition’s party leaders as ministers in his second
government, thereby attempting to bind their parties more directly to the
destiny of the government.
However, the changes should not be overstated. While Berlusconi’s
second government lasted for a record 1,410 days in office, he had continual
problems in exercising his authority, in terms of securing commonly agreed
policies, and the government was eventually brought down before the end of
the legislature. More generally, in the period between 1993 and 2006 there
were ten governments (Ciampi, Berlusconi I, Dini, Prodi I, D’Alema I and
II, Amato, Berlusconi II and III, Prodi II), all of which – apart from
Berlusconi II – were relatively short-lived. The governments that saw out the
legislatures in 1996, 2001 and 2006 were not the same as those which had
inaugurated those legislatures. Both Berlusconi and Prodi in their first
governments experienced being thrown out of office through a so-called
ribaltone (an overturning of the existing parliamentary majority), the former
finding himself replaced by a ‘technical’ government led by Dini and the
latter by a leader from within his own coalition (D’Alema). The parliament
has also reacted to the new majoritarian trends by introducing new
instruments of control (Prime Minister’s question time, ‘urgent interpellations’)
and more frequent parliamentary oversight, which Capano and
Giuliani (2003) interpret as evidence of an effort to resist government
attempts to bend the legislature to its will by exploiting to greater effect the
institutional resources the parliament possesses.
In short, the last 15 years have not produced significant improvements
either in terms of prime ministers’ tenure or the stability of governmental
coalitions. While some politicians have viewed these continuities with old
practices as an acceptable occurrence in a parliamentary system, others have
criticised and deplored them and put them down either to a half-baked
electoral reform or, more generally, as a confirmation of the need for
constitutional reform to establish a different relationship between the voters,
parliament and government.
Much of the discussion regarding reform has focused on drawing the
logical implications of the majoritarian trends set in motion by the 1993
electoral reform, this to be achieved primarily by strengthening the powers
of the Prime Minister to establish a ‘Premierato forte’ (strong prime
ministership) – or, as Sartori was to dub it (in several of his articles for the
Corriere della Sera), a ‘Silvierato’, since Berlusconi became its chief
Institutional Reforms in Italy 679
protagonist. The model looked to for this strong Prime Minister was
invariably the British one, despite the presence in the Italian system of several
political and institutional features that would make it almost impossible to
import such a model, although a very different option was also entertained by
others (including the Bicameral Commission on institutional reform): the
French semi-presidential system with its majoritarian run-off electoral
system. In fact, between 1992 and 1999, because of the vagaries of
parliamentary majorities, President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro took on pretensions
of a ‘semi-presidential President’, rejecting requests for early dissolution of
parliament, imposing one dissolution in 1994, and appointing several prime
ministers and giving them his full institutional support. This was ironic
because Scalfaro had been elected to that office largely on the basis of his
avowedly strong views on the importance of the institutional and political
role of parliament, and his opposition to tendencies towards the ‘presidentialization
of politics’ (Poguntke and Webb 2005).
There developed an underlying agreement that the Prime Minister’s
powers should be strengthened, and the debate therefore focused on how
this could best be achieved. The consensus was that he (no Italian woman
has ever come close to being appointed to that office) should obtain at least
the power to appoint and dismiss ministers and to dissolve parliament.6
While some (unwittingly or not) interpreted the British case as if the Prime
Minister were elected by the voters, Mario Segni (leader of the Referendum
movement) went as far as to suggest the adoption of a system similar to that
used to elect Italian mayors. In Segni’s view the best means of creating a
more powerful Prime Minister was to make him the ‘Sindaco d’Italia’
(Mayor of Italy). Notwithstanding (or not understanding) the risk of institutional
rigidities that can follow from what would have been a disguised
introduction of a presidential form of government (demonstrated by the
Israeli case of the direct election of the Prime Minister), the idea of a ‘Mayor
of Italy’ was not without currency, and a weak surrogate was subsequently
devised in the form of inserting the name of the candidate for the office of
Prime Minister on the electoral ballot, thereby tying the hands of the
President of the Republic. It was something which had, in any case, already
been experimented with in the 2001 elections, with few objections from
politicians or scholars, save Sartori who has consistently opposed ad hoc
changes which, he argues, amount in practice to institutional gimmicks. Yet,
the reform proposals of the Casa delle Liberta` of 2005 had more ambitious
Berlusconi’s goals in reforming the Prime Minister’s powers were two-fold.
First, he wanted to exercise greater control over parliament, by acquiring the
power to dissolve it (to the cost of the President of the Republic, who would
have lost a critical balancing role) and making the way it functions chime
more with the idea of sustaining the policies of the governing majority (the
chief villain here being identified as ‘symmetric bicameralism’). Second, still
wounded from what happened to his government in 1994,7 Berlusconi was
680 M. Bull and G. Pasquino
determined to make it impossible for a sitting Prime Minister (as leader of a
coalition commanding a majority of seats) to be replaced either by a change
of mind within the same majority or through a reshuffling of the parliamentary
groups. The subsequent reform, conceived by Berlusconi and
apparently enthusiastically supported by his collaborators, consequently did
away with what Juan Linz (1994) and Giovanni Sartori (1994) consider the
key advantage of parliamentary over presidential systems: the possibility of
replacing in parliament and by parliament the head of government if he or
she is considered to be a liability.8
The resulting reform proposed the formal renaming of the ‘President of
the Council of Ministers’ to ‘Prime Minister’. The President of the Republic
would no longer choose the Prime Minister but would have to appoint the
leader of the winning coalition. The Prime Minister would appoint and
dismiss ministers. The Prime Minister or his/her government would no
longer be subject to a vote of confidence, but only have to present his/her
programme to the House of Deputies which would express a view through a
vote. The Prime Minister could resign at any time, precipitating the
dissolution of parliament. The Prime Minister could pose a vote of confidence,
asking the House to give this request priority. In the case of defeat,
or if any votes of the opposition were to be essential to victory, the Prime
Minister would be obliged to resign and parliament would be dissolved.
Deputies belonging to the majority (as elected at the previous election) could
present a motion of no confidence if, at the same time, they were to
designate a new candidate for Prime Minister who would be charged with
implementing the same programme on the basis of the same majority. In the
event of the vote passing, the Prime Minister would resign and the President
of the Republic would appoint the new Prime Minister.
The reform also proposed to bring ‘symmetric bicameralism’ to an end.
The House of Deputies would become the principal chamber, its numbers
being reduced (from 2016) from 630 to 518.9 The minimum age of eligibility
for the House would be lowered from 25 to 21 years. The Senate would be
renamed the Federal Senate, with members elected in each region (at the
same time as the election of regional councils), and its numbers being
reduced (from 2016) from 315 to 252. The minimum age of eligibility for the
Senate would be reduced from 40 to 25 years. The House of Deputies would
have competence in the areas of exclusive legislation granted to the state.
For each piece of legislation, there would only be one vote, there being no
vote in the Federal Senate, which would have only the power to call (within
30 days of approval by the House for bills, and 15 days for decrees) for
modifications to be made, but the House would have the final say. For
concurrent powers, the situation would be reversed, with the Federal Senate
having the final say. The government would be able to intervene directly in
the legislative process. If the government felt that modifications should be
made to a bill being examined by the Senate, it could authorise the President
of the Republic to convey these proposals to the Senate, which would have
Institutional Reforms in Italy 681
to decide within 30 days. If the modifications were not to be accepted, they
would go to the House which would have the final say. Government bills
would always be given priority in parliament’s schedule of work.
The proposed reform received diverging evaluations. Most centre-left
politicians – despite their earlier advocacy of a Prime Minister who would be
safe from replacement and endowed with powers to appoint and dismiss
ministers and dissolve parliament – now berated the creation of a Prime
Minister who, they argued, would be dictator of both parliament and his
majority, a view echoed by many commentators (e.g. Sartori 2006: 31–2) who
suggested it amounted to a ‘Prime Ministerial dictatorship’. Certainly, the
usual remedies or checks against a government which was incapacitated,
failing to deliver its programme or just corrupt disappeared under new
measures: the removal of the President’s power to dissolve parliament and the
introduction of the ‘constructive vote of no confidence’ (which was reserved
to the majority’s deputies). The Chamber of Deputies was largely under the
control of the Prime Minister and government, and the Chamber dominated
the Senate, but through a complicated system which increased the number of
legislative procedures from one to five, allowing the government to intervene
directly in the legislative process, and one of which involving (effectively in an
improper role) the President of the Republic.
However, others suggested that the Prime Minister could, in fact, become
effectively prisoner of his majority unable either to govern (because paralysed
by his own majority) or, at the same time, dissolve parliament (because of the
absence of the stipulated conditions). The centre-right hailed the reform as
finally ending the lamentable practice of ribaltoni and laying the foundations
for a strong, stable and effective prime ministerial government.
Yet, in their hurry to pass a reform of both the Prime Minister and
electoral system, the parties of the centre-right failed to see the connection
between an electoral law and the way a government is created, reshuffled
and replaced. They also overlooked the fact that institutional rules and
mechanisms are less important than political partisan realities in determining
the power of a Prime Minister. The former embed (sometimes
unwelcome) rigidities and can breed inter-institutional conflicts; the latter
are flexible and likely to change when the preferences of voters and
politicians change, thereby promising better to reflect the demands and
needs of a democracy.
Devolution: Change and No Change
Regional government, in the period between 1970 (when it was first

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