Monday, June 03, 2013

Presidents, Semi-presidents and Prime Ministers.

Yesterday was the anniversary of the foundation of the Italian Republic; in 1946, Italians voted in favour of a Republic rather than the constitutional monarchy which had governed the country since 1861. After choosing the republic, the Constituent Assembly gave the country a parliamentary constitution. This has a largely symbolic president and most power with a prime minister conditioned by parliament.

They had just come out of a 20 year dictatorship and five years of bloody war so there was every reason to create a system which limited the power of the executive. But government, especially democratic government is always a compromise between allowing to take decisions quickly and limiting power.

Madison put it elegantly

If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

But the ancient Roman republic had worked it out more than 2,000 years before Madison. They knew they had to limit power. And with it the ability to take decisions.

Not for the first time, there are suggestions that the system should be changed and the flavour of this week is a French style semi-presidentialism.

Silvio Berlusconi and the centre-right have always been clear that they like the idea of a president with real power. On many occasions over the last 20 years, Berlusconi expressed his frustration at what he considered a disfunctional reining in of prime ministerial executive power. Most of the time he spoke out in favour of a presidential republic (with himself as the likely President). The impression one got is that he did not actually understand the severe constraints that a US president works under and that he certainly had never heard Harry Truman’s remark when Eisenhower won the elections:

“He’ll sit here, and he’ll say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ And nothing will happen. Poor Ike—it won’t be a bit like the Army. He’ll find it very frustrating.”

Substitute "in business" for "the Army" and we have Berlusconi. The American separation of powers means just that. And it also means that since the parties in congress do not give a vote of confidence to a prime minister, they are even less disciplined than parties in parliamentary systems so that even when the president has a majority in Congress, they will not rubber stamp his bills.

The French system of course gives the president most of the executive powers of a president and a prime minister so that the president really is “the chief executive”. This makes it very attractive to Berlusconi and a populist right. The president is directly elected so has popular as well as party legitimacy and real executive power; unlike a presidential system, there is a prime minister but he or she normally just does the president’s bidding and can do it because the PM must have a majority in the National Assembly in order to be there. I suspect that the only negative aspect for Berlusconi is in the name – that “semi-” suggests that it is less than whole.

On the centre-left there are no lexical doubts and the political doubts are decreasing. On Saturday Prime Minister Enrico Letta said “The last presidential elections revealed the fatigue in our democracy. In my opinion we can’t elect the president using this system again”. There was an immediate response from Angelino Alfano, deputy prime minister and secretary of Berlusconi’s centre-right People of Freedom (PdL) “It would be a real proof of democracy to elect the head of state as they do in the US and France. We have always been in favour of the direct election of the president”.

Last week, one of the founders of the PD and longtime rival of Berlusconi, Romano Prodi wrote an opinion piece in Il Messaggero arguing that having a French-style semi-presidentialism would have “put Italy ahead of other European countries rather than being always on the edge of a precipice”.

The only person who argued in favour just using the rules of the game was Giovanni Sartori, doyen of Italian and international political science who has always argued in favour the system (and a similar one of his own).

But opposition has already started.

A good portion of the rest of the PD was overtly critical, starting with Rosy Bindi, party president until April. Others on the left, outside the party, like Stefano Rodotà and Nichi Vendola were even more explicit.

In an ideal world, the arguments in a debate on changing constitutional architecture should be based on logic and an examination of the effects of this or that electoral system… but we all know that political debate rarely works on those principles.

Not only is there a confusion over what alternatives are on offer – what do the French, the Americans, the British, the Germans actually do, to take decisions and control political power – there is also a confusion between the various elements: the electoral system, the powers of the legislature and the relative powers of the two chambers, and finally, the relationship between head of state and head of government. Put them all into a pot together and the result is a minestrone, not a constitutional reform. In any case, there has been some creeping, de facto, reform already.

Over the last two years, prime minister and parliament have lost prestige and decision making power because of their own incapacity and the president has taken up the slack (without doing anything unconstitutional). Letta, Prodi and the centre-right would like to see this position formalised in the name of governability (a buzzword in the late ‘80s when Bettino Craxi was searching for greater powers). The implicit message is that this increase in power should be almost unconditional – Berlusconi’s railing against the Judiciary is actually explicit. He feels that the only brake on executive power should be the people, in an unmediated relationship with the leader, something that Madison warned against 200 years ago. The Americans, the French and the British do indeed give wide albeit different powers to their leaders but they have trust in their institutions to prevent or at least limit any abuse. Italians do not have that trust so they would be ill-advised to give their leader too much power.

A “semi-president” could well end up with a lot more than "semi-power".

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