This is the beginning of a short series on countries that have actively debated introducing semi-presidentialism. In these posts I am not trying to provide a full resume of the debate in any given country. I am just aiming to give a sense of whether the introduction of semi-presidentialism was a realistic possibility at some point.
The first country is Italy. Here, I am relying heavily on Mark Donovan’s 2003 PSA paper, Gianfranco Pasquino’s paper in Journal of Modern Italian Studies, 3:1, 1998, and Carlo Fusaro’s article in South European Society and Politics, 3:2, 1998. You can read their papers if you want to know more about the Italian debates about introducing semi-presidentialism. For those who read Italian, the text of reference is S. Ceccanti, O. Massaro and G. Pasquino, Semipresidenzialismo. Analisi delle esperienze europee, Il Mulino, 1996.
One point that comes across clearly from Mark Donovan’s paper is that the idea of introducing semi-presidentialism in Italy goes back quite a long way – to the early 1960s. (This begs the question, of course, as to whether the semi-presidentialism that they were thinking of introducing was consistent with the definition used in this blog). Another point that stands out is the constant party politicisation of the debate. The debate always seems to have been conducted along party political lines rather than along cross-party constitutional lines.
In the 1960s and 1970s those supporting semi-presidentialism seemed to be inspired by the French example. Also, in very general terms, there seems to have been a certain correlation between the moderate left (or some elite elements of it) and support for semi-presidentialism. (When the Northern League began to support the idea this seems to have been deliberately designed to defeat the specific proposal then under consideration).
The main debate about semi-presidentialism seems to have occurred in the 1997-98 period. At this time, there were distinct and competing proposals: French-style semi-presidentialism and Israeli-style direct election of the prime minister. In the end, clearly, neither was adopted. For Donovan, semi-presidentialism was criticised from all sides: for those who wanted a strong executive there was the fear that the president may not be powerful enough; for those who feared a strong executive the president had the potential to be too powerful.
Since this time semi-presidentialism continues to be supported, but it has dropped from the political debate. On the academic side, Gianfranco Pasquino is still an active supporter of semi-presidentialism. Examples of his work can be found in R. Elgie and S. Moestrup eds., Semi-presidentialism Outside Europe, 2007, and in European Journal of Political Research, vol. 31, 1997, pp. 128-137.
In one sense, Italy is perhaps the country where the introduction of semi-presidentialism has been debated keenly for the longest period of time. However, the party politicisation of the debate at every point and the absence of clear party majorities at the time when it was debated probably meant that it was never likely to be chosen. Had the debate been between presidentialism and parliamentarism, then semi-presidentialism might have emerged as a compromise situation. However, given that semi-presidentialism was explicitly proposed by certain party political forces, this meant that its chances of being adopted were probably always fairly slim.