The vote for a new president of Italy is underway. As in most parliamentary systems that are not also monarchies, the head of state is a president, but not one who is popularly elected. In Italy, an electoral college made up of the two houses of parliament and representatives of regional governments–just over 1,000 electors in all–chooses the president. (A similar electoral college exists in Germany, while in many other parliamentary republics, parliament itself elects the president.)
The process is currently deadlocked, as a result of the two-thihrds requirement in initial voting and the close divide in the recent parliamentary elections between Italy’s two main political blocs. As the BBC notes, the Italian president is “basically a figurehead,” which, of course, leads one to ask, why do the parties care enough to be deadlocked?
Of course, the answer is in the key adverb: mostly a figurehead. There is little the president in Italy–or other parliamentary systems, such as Germany, Israel, the Czech Republic*, Greece, etc.–can do without the approval of parliament or the government (cabinet and prime minister) that is itself accountable to parliament. However, it is not as if there is absolutely zero discretion in these presidencies. Typically, they have the formal authority to designate who will be given the first crack at forming a government after an election or a vote of no confidence, and a small degree of discretion in deciding when a new election will be held (i.e. to dissolve parliament after a government has been ousted on a confidence vote, or when a stable government cannot be formed).
Most of the time the situations in which this discretion could be exercised constitutionally, there is no opportunity to do so politically. That is, there usually is a clear majority (even if it consists of a coalition of several parties) that alone has the possibility of forming a viable government. Likewise, usually it is clear when there is not such a majority, or when that majority has lost the confidence of the voters, and thus it is time for an early election.
It is in those rare times when such situations are not obvious that the “reserved powers” of the presidency can become important. And that is where Italy is, at least potentially, today. There is no doubt that the left will form the next government. But there is a lot of doubt that said government will prove stable, and there could be a decision point down the road over whether to have an early election or to designate someone within the current parliament to try to form a new government without an early election.
It is precisely in the ambiguous spaces that the presidency may be more than a figurehead. And so the parties care who the president is. In recent months we have seen presidents exercise power in somewhat controversial means in Germany and Israel, despite those presidencies being mostly figureheads.
The Italian electoral college takes three ballots in which a two-thirds majority is needed. If no candidate has obtained that threshold by then, the majority prevails. Many parliamentary systems have these kinds of procedures for their head of state, aimed at securing a broadly acceptable choice, but ultimately having a means to prevent the default being no one is elected. (Compare the very similar rule in Iraq‘s new constitution.)
*Yes, Vaclav Havel was just a “figurehead.”
UPDATE, 10 May: Giorgio Napolitano was elected President by 543 votes out of 1,009. Napolitano was the candidate of incoming prime minister Romano Prodi. The electoral method, discussed above, practically ensured that the bicameral majority would prevail, despite the formal rule that the electoral college make a first effort to reach consensus with two thirds. Now the process of formally forming Prodi’s government will move forward very quickly.