The Italian Constitution dedicates 8 articles (83-91) to the election, duties and removal of the head of state. The paucity of powers conferred reflects the negative experiences of Fascist government.
The head of state electorate is summoned by the Speaker of the Lower House. The electorate consists of both Houses of Parliament sitting in common session together with 3 representatives from each of the Italian Regions with the exception of the Val d'Aosta which has one. Regional representatives are elected by Regional Councils, normally 2 from the ruling group and one from the opposition, although other 'Grand Electors' are not excluded formally.
Of those present and voting a two thirds majority is required for election on the first few ballots. After that a simple majority will suffice. Only two heads of state have succeeded on one of the first two ballots since the Second world war. Some elections have dragged on for up to two weeks.
Candidates must be over 50 years old, Italian citizens, and in full possession of their civil and political rights. It is possible to be re-elected but no-one ever has been despite lots of former heads of state being only too eager to stay on. No other post, public or private, may be held by the head of state, nor may the head of state undertake any other professional activity.
Office begins at the swearing-in ceremony immediately after the term of the previous office-holder expires, and lasts for seven years.
No vice-presidential office exists. Should the head of state be unable to function for whatever temporary reason the president of the Senate steps in.
Threaten, or even make rude remarks about the honourability of the head of state, and the high jump awaits. In instances of the head of state's high treason or assault upon the Italian Constitution Parliament will bring accusations after a joint sitting and then bring the head of state before the Constitutional Court. This has never happened despite sore provocation on various occasions. The head of state cannot be tried for decisions taken during office pertaining to official duties.
Every act of office by the head of state must be counter-signed by either the appropriate minister responsible in the government of the day or by the prime minister, except when the head of state acts in the the three duties specifically indicated by the Constitution:
- that of President of the Supreme Defence Council
- that of President of the Superior Council of Magistrates
- that of representing national unity [lot of room there, ed.]
The head of state can send back to Parliament legislation which raises doubts on its constitutional propriety or which has no financial cover. [Eyebrows raised at this point may attract the penalties mentioned above on honour and rude remarks, which certainly includes gestures. ed.]
The head of state nominates Life Senators of which there seems to be a general agreement that half a dozen or so is the limit, at least no head of state has yet tried making so many as to alter the balance of political power in a perfectly bi-cameral Parliament. The head of state can send warning messages to the Parliament that it is misbehaving; nominates constitutional judges, which last power is at the crux of Silvio Berlusconi's current political operations. The head of state can dissolve the Parliament within the parliamentary five-year term when no-one is able to command a majority, except when in the last six months of the seven-year presidential office [in which Napolitano has been since November. ed.]
The head of state nominates the prime minister, either after a general election or when an administration falls to votes of no confidence in Parliament, after consultations with the speakers of both Houses of Parliament and the political parties.
The current Head of State has nominated no-one to face the Parliament since the general election last February. On any actions the current Head of State has undertaken since that election, other than those noted above, the Italian Constitution is silent.