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EXPLAINED: How do Italy’s presidential elections work?

Elections for Italy's next president take place on Monday - but what exactly does an Italian president do, and how does the election process work? Here's what you need to know.

Current President of the Italian Republic Sergio Mattarella.
Current President of the Italian Republic Sergio Mattarella. Photo: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP

How does Italy elect its presidents?

Italy has an unusually opaque system for electing presidents.

While political parties and coalitions typically engage in protracted negotiations about who they should back for the role (news agency Ansa reports that as of Thursday morning, the centre-left had still not agreed on their preferred candidate), contenders don’t formally run for president, and aren’t officially nominated.

READ ALSO: Voting for new Italian president to begin on January 24th

The elections are not open to the general public, but are held among a group of just over 1,000 electors. Ballots are cast in secret by 630 MPs, 321 senators and 58 regional representatives – all which has led some commentators to liken Italy’s presidential elections to a papal conclave.

You don’t need to be a politician to be considered for president in Italy. The only criteria are that you have reached the age of 50, are a registered voter, and are not legally barred from being in office – which in the past has led to votes being cast for the likes of Sofia Loren and Santo Versace (the brother of Gianni).

While Italy’s next presidential elections are scheduled to begin on Monday, there are usually multiple rounds of voting, and one particularly long cycle in 1971 took over two weeks to be completed.

Candidates need to receive a two-thirds majority in the first three rounds and an absolute majority of 505 votes in subsequent ballots to be successful.

What is the Italian president’s role?

The role of the Italian president, fulfilled over the course of a seven-year term, is often seen as largely – though not exclusively – ceremonial.

Presidents in Italy hold the title of head of state, and are responsible for upholding the country’s constitution. As such, they are not the head of the executive (that position is filled by the prime minister), but instead preside over and unite the executive, judicial and legislative branches.

READ ALSO: An introductory guide to the Italian political system

While on a day-to-day basis their function often doesn’t extend beyond providing their country with a sense of stability, Italian presidents are more than mere figureheads, and in fact are possessed of considerable powers.

Current Italian prime minister Mario Draghi (right) is considered one of the favourites for president.
Italy’s prime minister Mario Draghi (right) is considered one of the favourites to become president. Photo by GUGLIELMO MANGIAPANE / POOL / AFP

They are tasked with authorising parliamentary bills, calling elections, appointing prime ministers and cabinet ministers, and (particularly relevant in a global pandemic) promulgating government decrees, which should automatically expire after 60 days in the first instance.

They can also dole out presidential pardons and commutations, grant honours, call referendums, remove regional presidents and dissolve parliament.

And Italy’s presidents can – and do – exercise those rights, as current president Sergio Mattarella demonstrated in 2018 when he refused to appoint eurosceptic Paola Savona to the role of finance minister, despite Savona’s having the backing of the majority of parliamentarians.

READ ALSO: How much power does the Italian president actually have?

All this invests the role of the Italian president with significant gravitas and moral authority – which is why many have baulked at the prospect of its being awarded to Silvio Berlusconi who, among other things, has been convicted of tax fraud, is still embroiled in multiple trials relating to his infamous ‘Bunga Bunga’ sex parties, and was until 2018 banned from holding office altogether.

Member comments

  1. We can only pray that right minded Italians don’t support Berlusconi. No country with him as its figurehead would be taken seriously worldwide. And surely they wouldn’t support someone with a criminal record?

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