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Meloni's "Premierato": Where do representativity and Italian civil society go?

SCRIPTS Blog Post No. 71 by Roberta Astolfi

№ 71/2024 from Mar 15, 2024

Roberta Astolfi presents her political-philosophical reflections on Meloni’s proposal for a constitutional reform, which points to a deep ongoing crisis of representativity of the Italian government and raises questions about the future of the liberal democratic system.

"Fascism" by Rickydavid is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

"Fascism" by Rickydavid is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

According to a survey conducted in December 2023, 58% of respondants believe that Italy "needs to be led by a strong leader," and 52%  agree that "democracy can function without political parties"[1].  Disturbing as they are, these data are also an excellent starting point for a political-philosophical reflection on the Meloni government's constitutional reform proposal.

According to the proposed reform, presented on November 3rd, 2023, by Minister Casellati, the President of the Council of Ministers (PM) would be elected directly by universal suffrage and a 55% majority bonus would be assigned to the PM’s party to strengthen the government. The President of the Republic (PR) would task the elected president—who will necessarily be a member of the parliament—with appointing the government. The reform ceases the PRs practice of appointing lifelong senators and eliminates PRs power to dissolve only one chamber of the parliament, Camera or Senato. If needed, the government will have two chances to obtain a vote of confidence in these chambers.

Before I get to my philosophical-political argument, there are two further topics fundamental for approaching Italian politics which I want to address: its political history since the post-World War II period and the turnover between two deeply populistic governments (Conte I and II) and a third, strongly technical one (Draghi), all supported by the same parliament.

The parties represented in the Constituent Assembly, elected by universal suffrage on June 2nd, 1946, to draft the first Italian Republican Constitution would remain at the center of political life until the 1980s. These primarily included the Christian Democracy led by De Gasperi, Togliatti's Italian Communist Party and the Socialist Party with Nenni and Saragat, which were mass parties to which their supporters were dedicated to in the form of active militancy. At the end of the 1960s, a time characterized by the economic boom of post-war reconstruction but also by corruption and environmental destruction, the leftist student and worker’s protest movement challenged the conservative norms of the country. Subsequent years saw intensified protests, with episodes of violence between protesters and authorities. These and the following years were also shaped by the so-called “strategy of tension” (strategia della tensione), i.e. the attempt to weaken confidence in the democratic system through bombings and massacres carried out by extreme right-wing or fascist groups and by  the actions of right and left-wing terrorist groups, the best known of which is probably the kidnapping and killing of Christian Democrat President Moro by the Red Brigades. The Bologna massacre in 1980 coincided with the international liberalist turn, signaling a shift in the political climate. The 1990s began with an investigation exposing the endemic corruption of Italian politics and business, and with several Mafia massacres culminating in the killings of Magistrates Falcone and Borsellino.

Against this background and in connection with the "riflusso"—the return to private life and interest after the political mobilization of the previous decades—and with the Fall of the Berlin Wall, two parties were born that will characterize Italian politics to this day: the Lega Lombarda (now Lega) and Forza Italia. The following years of the so-called Berlusconismo are characterized by both a crumbling of traditional political ideologies and a growing distrust in politics. The succession of the Conte and Draghi governments is an expression (also) of this political-historical scenario. 

While technical governments are nothing new in Italian history,the peculiarity of the Draghi government lies in the parliament that elected it. The March 2018 general elections sanctioned a harsh defeat for all "traditional" parties in favor of the Movimento 5 Stelle and the Lega. The leader of the populist government was Conte, a lawyer from the 5-Stelle area who until then had been outside both parliament and politics. The two Conte governments, the first (2018-19) supported by the Lega, which later withdrew its support, and the second (2019-2021) supported by the Left, were followed by the Draghi government, which remained in office until the 2022 elections.

Why focus on this turnover? First, because this shows the instability of Italian governments. Second and more importantly, it shows how the same parliament has supported purely populist governments and a government that has made the superiority of technicians its banner. But are populism and technocracy not two opposing phenomena? Not entirely. 

From my philosophical-political perspective, populism and technocracy share the trait of the impoverishment of the individuals’ political role. Obviously, their ways are different: while populism reduces the individuals’ political role by involving them in massifying processes, technocracy reduces it by detaching the individuals from their active political opportunities and responsibilities. However, both populism and technocracy flourish where individuals are detached from their rational, autonomous, and active political powers, which are reserved to specific leading groups. In the end, even though populism and technocracy pretend to repair the lack of representativity for which they blame the liberal system, they do not solve this problem either.

Returning to Italian politics, the impoverishment of the individuals’ politically active role is related to the abovesaid distrust in politics. What could be observed in Italy over the last years is nothing but the materialization of one of the central problems of the liberal democratic system: the crisis of representativity. This is the political-philosophical aspect that I wish to highlight, and which links us both to the constitutional reform and to the above-mentioned survey. 

Intuitively, there are two ways to approach the crisis of representativity. One involves greater recognition of the individual’s contribution to the political life and a greater role for civil society in general. In a representative democracy, this would ensure a continuous exchange between representatives and the represented. The other option focuses on a strong leadership. Since the chosen option gives an idea of the state of the liberal-democratic system, a reflection on the constitutional reform proposed by Casellati on a theoretical level is particularly important. .

On September 28th, 2022, the far-right coalition lead by Meloni won the Italian general electionsCoincidentaly, a century earlier, Mussolini took control of the Italian parliament, starting a 20-year dictatorship that coined the term totalitarianism for the well-known political phenomena of the 20th century. Nowadays, in a moment of rising the fear of an anti-democratic upsurge in whichthe liberal system no longer seems to be capable of maintaining many of its promises, the victory of Fratelli d’Italia, Meloni’s far-right party with (at least) a strong fascist heritage, raised a wave of concern for the liberal democratic system within the EU. 

Meloni won the election (also) thanks to her criticism of the alleged lack of representativity of the governments of the previous legislature. Giving voice to a common sentiment, Meloni questioned their legitimacy by leaning on the fact that they did not reflect the voters’ choices. This criticism refers to the erroneous belief that governments and PMs are elected directly and not by parliament. In this sense, the idea of presidentialism as a solution to the problem of instability and representativity was already part of the electoral program of the current PM. It is therefore clear that Meloni’s choice concerning representativity goes through strengthening the leader’s role. 

The shape of the electoral system—which would with this reform become a majoritarian one—has always been a highly debated political issue in Italy. Another sensitive topic concerns the attempts to modify the constitution, probably the most valuable masterpiece of political confrontation and of high-level compromise among the democratic components of the Constituent AssemblyMeloni’s proposal implies both a modification of the electoral system and an attempt to deeply modify the constitution. The fact that the proposal for a presidential system in a majoritarian electoral law comes from the most far-right Italian government since Mussolini reinforces the need to closely observe how the institutional path of the reform will play out. 

The problematic aspect of Meloni’s “premierato”—as the reform is called—lays in the delegitimization of parliament, which is also accentuated by the large majority bonus awarded to the governing coalition that severely limits its relevance compared to that of the PM. 

It should not be forgotten that parliaments do not only represent the winners of elections but should also represent the plurality of beliefs and needs of all (voters). Concentrating powers and representativeness in the PM means ignoring that a majority preference is still a partial preference and devalues the role of political debate and compromise inside and outside of parliament. The PM’s direct election does not bring representatives and the represented closer but instead results in further estrangement: by placing parliament in the PM’s shadow, contributions to politics by civil society would fall by the wayside in favor of the choices of a particular part of it. The representativity that is strengthened is one that transfers the power of many to one, not one that allows for a shared exercise of political power. The elimination of the lifelong senators' role, often overlooked in the analysis of the reform proposal, also points, in my opinion, in this direction. Since they gain their position for their civic contribution to the country, eliminating this role means eliminating another link between politics and society, which has been capable of bringing into light contradictions in the relationship between these two spheres, as shown by the Larussa-Segre case [2].

The results of the survey make clear that the government's choices are not alien to the sentiment (of at least one part) of the country. Strong leadership and possible elimination of parties speak for a structural distrust in the representative democratic system. Meloni’s “premierato” fits this sentiment. However, it is the response of the Italian civil society that particularly interests me. Will it be able to confirm itself as a true democratic force in the country and work on a more dialogical and inclusive representation that can strengthen the political system? Or will it allow itself to be excluded from political action by accepting a concept of representation directed more at strengthening the representatives than the represented? If the theoretical core of the reform is representativity, these are the questions this proposal confronts us with. 


Roberta Astolfi is a political philosopher and an expert in (the history of) Italian politics. Over the last years, she focused on populism and technocracy, while she currently concentrates on politics, aesthetics, and pop-culture. She is postdoctoral researcher at SCRIPTS and the academic coordinator of the SCRIPTS Research Unit Orders.


[1] Laboratorio di Studi Politici e Sociali dell'Università di Urbino/ Demos & Pi: Rapporto gli Italiani e lo stato – uomo forte (Dicembre 2023), Demos & Pi, https: https://www.demos.it/rapporto.php.

[2] “Liliana Segre und Ignazio La Russa – niemand könnte Italiens politischen Kulturwandel besser verkörpern”, Neue Züricher Zeitung, 13.10.2022, https: https://www.nzz.ch/international/liliana-segre-und-ignazio-la-russa-niemand-koennte-italiens-politischen-kulturwandel-besser-verkoerpern-ld.1707176.