Italy set up its present form of government in 1946, when it changed from a monarchy to a republic headed by a president. The constitution of 1948, which replaced the Statuto of 1848, describes Italy as “a democratic republic founded on work.” The constitution established a governing system made up of a president, a cabinet called the council of ministers headed by a prime minister, and a Parliament made up of a senate and a chamber of deputies. All citizens 18 years old or older can vote, except members of the former ruling family. The constitution prohibits reestablishment of the Fascist party.

The president of Italy is elected for a seven-year term by Parliament in joint session, to which are added three delegates from each region (one from Valle d'Aosta). The president must be at least 50 years old. He or she appoints the prime minister, who forms a government. The president has the power to dissolve Parliament and call new elections. The president is the commander of the Italian armed forces, and can declare war. The president is the head of state but has only limited powers. Executive authority rests with the prime minister and cabinet, responsible to Parliament. Italy has no vice president. If the president of Italy becomes ill, the president of the Italian Senate takes over the office, and if the president dies, a presidential election is held.

The prime minister determines national policy and is the most important person in the Italian government. The prime minister is selected by the president—usually from among the members of Parliament—and has to be approved by the Parliament. The prime minister has no fixed term of office and can be voted out of office by Parliament at any time. Members of the Cabinet are chosen by the prime minister, appointed by the president and must be approved by Parliament. They are usually selected from the members of Parliament. The Italian prime minister and the cabinet are officially called the government.

Supreme governmental authority rests with Parliament, which consists of the Chamber of Deputies, with 630 members, the Senate of the Republic, with 315 members and 5 appointed for life by the president. All former presidents also become senators for life. The two houses are equal in power. During 1948-93 members of Parliament were elected under a proportional representation system. In 1993 Italy changed its election laws so that most of the members of Parliament are elected directly by the people.

Italy’s voters directly elect three-fourths of the members of both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. The other one-fourth of both houses are elected by a complicated system based on proportional representation. Deputies are chosen by the voters from 27 constituencies (voter districts). The elected senators are chosen from 20 units of local government called regions. Deputies and senators serve five-year terms. But the president may dissolve Parliament and call for new elections before the term is up. A large number of political parties are represented in Italy’s Parliament. Political parties form coalitions (partnerships) in order to have enough power to gain control of the government.

Since 1948, Italy has had frequent cabinet changes, most of which have lasted less than a year. But many members of one cabinet remain in the next one, thus providing continuity. In coalition governments, cabinet members are from different political parties. If some of the parties in the cabinet disagree with its policies, they may withdraw their support and require the formation of a new cabinet. Coalitions of political parties dominate Italian politics. Leading parties in conservative coalitions have included Forza Italia and the National Alliance. In liberal coalitions, the leading parties have included the Democrats of the Left and the Daisy party. Italy has a unitary system of government, with the national government possessing most of the power.

The judiciary is independent of the executive and legislative departments. Judges form a section of the civil service. The Court of Cassation in Rome is the highest court. It reviews the decisions of lower courts, and can return cases to the lower courts for new trials. There is also the Constitutional Court, which decides constitutional questions. All judges of Italian courts are appointed, rather than elected. Except for the 15 judges of the Constitutional Court, five of whom are chosen by the president, five by the Parliament, and five by judges of the other courts, all other Italian judges have to earn their appointments through civil service examinations. All courts operate under the national ministry of justice and a panel of judges called the Superior Council of the Judiciary. The Constitutional Court, the highest court in Italy, can declare acts of Parliament illegal. Italy has a number of lower courts. Appeals from civil and criminal courts are brought before Courts of Appeals. Cases involving serious crimes are heard in Courts of Assizes.

Each of Italy's 20 regions has an elected parliament and executive. In addition to the regions, there are 93 provinces, each governed by an elective council and a prefect who serves a term of four years; and some 7,850 communes (municipalities). The communes are Italy's smallest units of local government, and are governed by a mayor who serves a four-year term.