Rome's right-wing mayor Gianni Alemanno

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Local government in Italy
From Rome to the smallest village,
Italian communes coexist as equals

By Andrew Stevens, Deputy Editor

21 February 2008: It could be said that Italy’s regions simultaneously bind and fragment the country due to inherent tensions within the system, most notably advanced by the secessionist party Lega Nord. However, Italy was one of the last states in Europe to embark upon nation-building and belatedly consolidated the various tiny states and papal entities in 1861 and its fragmented nature can be traced back throughout the ages. The newly unified Italy opted for a highly centralised system modelled on the French state, ignoring demands for federalism for fear of fragmentation.

An additional dimension arose from the annexation of territory such as South Tyrol by treaty in 1919, now one of several regions with special arrangements to reflect non-Italian speaking populations. Post-unification, the centralisation was continued to extremes under the fascist period of Italy’s history. The post-fascist era constitution of 1948 guaranteed regional autonomy and this was augmented in 1970 with direct elections. The five recognised special regions (either bordering other countries or islands) are endowed with specific legislative powers while the others are not, though all regions are governed by an elected council (giunta regionale) and president. The regions are then further divided into 103 provincial areas (modelled on the French departement), which since 1993 each elect their own council and president under proportional representation. They are also supervised by a prefect appointed by the national government in Rome.

The Italian commune (or communi) plays a central role in national life and is a settled feature of the political system. Over 8,000 in number, the communes are each headed by a mayor (sindaco) and elected council (consiglio communal) of between 15 and 80 members. From the capital Rome to the smallest village, the communes coexist on an equal basis, although the mayors of Rome and Milan can be seen as national political figures in their own right. They also enjoy high levels of allegiance from their local populations, making their boundaries hard to amend or reform. In addition to civil registration and local public services, including roads, communes are able to run their own local police forces and provide local healthcare services. The Italian capital Rome is served by 19 municipal entities, the Municipi.

A key debate in Italian local government mirrors the on-going tension between the wealthy north and the less affluent south. The equalisation regime remains contested by the northern regions, who would like to see large reductions in the subsidies paid to their southern counterparts. The tendency over the past decade therefore has been towards fiscal decentralisation, with regions being able to retain their tax receipts and the introduction of some new regional taxes and fiscal levers. In 2001, a major devolutionary reform was enacted with the introduction of the principle of constitutional subsidiarity and legal parity between central and regional governments. The process underpinning this is expected to last until 2013 however, rather than take place overnight. A referendum in June 2006 on reforms to give regions greater power over education and health saw voters reject them by almost two-thirds. The proposals, worked up under the former government of Silvio Berlusconi, were opposed by the newly-elected centre-left coalition of Romano Prodi and largely associated with the Northern League coalition partners of the outgoing administration. It was also ventured that if enacted, the reforms would place Italy on a federal footing.

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