Italy “coalition of populists” back on

If Spain this week has shown parliamentary democracy working at its “constructive” best, what can we say about Italy? After it seemed earlier in the week as if an interim “non-political” government would be formed to lead the country until early elections, now the seemingly aborted coalition of “populist” parties is back on.

The president has approved Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and a cabinet consisting of ministers selected by the Lega and M5s parties.

Aside from what a topsy-turvy week it was, and from the perils of this combination of parties governing, a notable feature of the government the Prime Minister is not actually the head of either party in the coalition. (Each party head will be a Deputy PM and hold other portfolios as well.) I will have to remember to insert the word “usually” into my lectures when I say that in a parliamentary democracy, the PM is the head of one of the parties in parliament. Of course, this is not totally unprecedented in parliamentary democracies, but it is indeed not usual.

I invite the creation of a list of PMs who are not a party head in parliamentary democracies, excluding cases of caretakers or “technical” governments appointed for an interim period (like the one Italy seemed earlier in the week to be getting). Manmohan Singh in a Congress-led government of India in the recent past comes immediately to mind.

13 thoughts on “Italy “coalition of populists” back on

  1. Prime Ministers who were not party leaders were not so unusual in The Netherlands until some time after WWII. Specifically, none of the post-war prime ministers from the Catholic People’s Party (1946-’48, ’58-’66, ’67-’71) were the party’s leaders.

    Māris Kučinskis, the current PM of Latvia, is not his party’s leader.

    You asked about parliamentary systems, but there are of course a number of interesting current examples from semi-presidential countries, including ones where the president is not (it seems) the reason for the government’s leader not being a party leader (e.g. Poland, Lithuania)

    (By the by, did you know that the prime ministers of both Latvia and Lithuania come from their respective country’s Union of Greens and Farmers?)

    • Interesting ont he Dutch cases, which I was not aware of. Why, specifically, did that party place other officials than the party leader into the PM position?

      I was aware of which party was in power in Latvia, but not that the PM was not the leader, nor the Lithuanian case.

  2. This has become something of a tradition in Serbia as two of the last three presidents (Aleksandar Vucic and Boris Tadic) lead their respective parties and installed pliable cadres in the PM office. Real power continued to be exercised from the Presidential palace in both cases.

    • Because Serbia has a semi-presidential form of government, it is a little less surprising that it might have premiers who are not party leaders (especially when the president is leader of his party).

  3. The British Prime Ministers Lloyd George and MacDonald did not lead any party throughout their tenure in office. Asquith remained leader of the Liberal Party during the entire Lloyd George government, and the Labour Party removed MacDonald as its leader. And neither of course lead the Tories who were the main support for their governments. Churchill also did not lead any party for his first six months in office, until be became Conservative Party leader after Neville Chamberlain died.

    • Ramsay MacDonald was leader of the British Labour Party until 24 August 1931. On that date he became leader of the National Labour Party, and formed a coalition with the Conservatives and Liberals.

      • The norm of the party leader as PM may be a good deal more recent than the 1930s or so. I do not claim to know, as all I have looked at is post-WWII. In that time, it seems it is pretty clearly a norm (under pure parliamentarism), the previously noted Dutch cases notwithstanding.

  4. What I think is even more interesting, or at least far more common, is the phenomenon of the PM not coming from the largest party in the coalition. I have yet to see much analysis or explanation of this phenomenon.

    • Agreed, that is an especially interesting phenomenon. I would think it was pretty uncommon, though. I remember Craxi in Italy. What other examples are there?

      • Italy also had Giovanni Spadolini from the Republican Party, which was actually the fourth party in the five-party coalition that was governing Italy at the time.

      • Lots of examples from Scandinavia (including, currently, Iceland). A few from Latvia and the Netherlands. Karnataka, currently.

  5. “Norwegian Guy” commented the following under the post entitled “The implosion of the Irish government” (January 2011):

    There has been quite a few examples in Norway of the prime minister not being a party leader. Kåre Willoch was leader of the Conservative party 1970-74 and PM 1981-86. Kjell Magne Bondevik was party leader 1983-95 and PM 1997-2000 and 2001-05. Jens Stoltenberg was PM 2000-2001 and since 2005, but didn’t become party leader until 2002. Oddvar Nordli was PM but never party leader. Gro Harlem Brundtland resigned as party leader in 1992, but continued as PM until 1996. I can think of a couple of German examples as well. Gerhard Schröder was Chancellor 1998-2005, but party leader 1999-2004, while Helmut Schmidt was never party leader.

    There have been both advantages and disadvantages with such arrangements. Some of the periods with split leadership in the Labour Party (Nordli/Steen 1976-81 and Stoltenberg/Jagland 2000-2002) are generally seen as unsuccessful, and to some extent reflecting compromises between different wings in a split party. But the periods with split leadership in the Conservative and Christian Democratic parties were generally periods when these parties were at the height of their support, and the Brundtland/Jagland split Labour leadership 1992-1996 was also a quite successful time for the party. One advantage is that it gives the party leader more time to concentrate on party affairs, and for promoting the party’s policies and interests in a coalition government, were the PM may have to take the interests of the coalition partners into account.

    Additionally, there’s probably been some cases in several countries were the prime minister did not come from the largest party participating in the government coalition. Baunsgaard in Denmark, Borten and Bondevik (2nd gov.) in Norway. Perhaps Prodi in Italy, though the distinction between parties and alliances complicates things there.

    And the Green Party in Ireland really did cut a “deal with the devil”, as Ciarán Cuffe predicted before entering the coalition with Fianna Fáil. Finally entering government for the first time ever, and then this whole financial crisis blowing up in their face. Don’t think they achieved that much on the high-profile environmental issues in Ireland either, like Shell to Sea and the Tara highway.

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