Italy Unitary state


History and trends

Italy is a parliamentary Republic. Its Constitution was adopted on 22 December 1947, and was substantially revised in April 1993.

Italy has a strong tradition of regionalism, although not to the same extent as Spain, because the Italian central government has long retained a broad range of powers and control over financial instruments (although this situation is evolving rapidly). However, regionalism in Italy is more highly developed than in France because the Italian regions, unlike their French counterparts, have legislative power and coordination power over the lower tiers of local government.

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, Italy’s political factions were united in their opposition to fascism but disagreed on implementation of the political system.

The constitution, which entered into force on 1 January 1948, is broadly inspired by Christian democracy, as evidenced in its approach to local self-government and the decentralisation of power. Italy, still reeling from the effects of war, had to look abroad for help with its reconstruction process.

The Italian constitution was amended on several occasions between 1990 and 2001, and several major laws were passed that substantially altered the powers of local governments and gave them greater financial resources. These as-yet incomplete reforms are likely, in the medium to long term, to result in a federal-style republic.

The new article 114 of the constitution states that: “The Republic is composed of the Municipalities, the Provinces, the Metropolitan Cities, the Regions and the State”. The constitution recognises the principle of subsidiarity as defined in the European Charter of Local Self-Government.

Italy’s political and administrative landscape is divided into three levels:

  • 20 regions (Regioni): 15 standard regions and 5 autonomous regions
  • 110 provinces (Provincia): 100 provinces and 10 metropolitan cities (Città metropolitane)
  • 8,006 municipalities (Comuni).


Each municipality has an average population of 7,530, and 545,000 people live in each province on average. Some 78% of the municipalities have fewer than 5,000 inhabitants.

Local level :

Each municipality has a council (Consiglio), a city board (Giunta comunale) and a mayor (Sindaco). The same organisational structure applies to the two higher tiers. The municipal council elects a president (who is not the mayor).

Since 1993, the mayors of municipalities with more than 15,000 inhabitants have been elected by direct universal suffrage.

The municipalities manage a wide range of public services directly. In addition to the functions delegated by the provinces, the regions and the state (very little in practice), the municipalities have statutory powers, primarily in health, social care, town planning and housing.

Mountain communities (Comunità montana) were established in 1971. Following recent legislative reforms, these communities are separate authorities with an associative structure and their own remit, although they may also receive delegated functions from the municipalities.

Each municipality is linked to a province or to a metropolitan city.

Intermediary level :

Italy has two intermediary levels: 100 provinces (Province) and 10 metropolitan cities (Città metropolitane).

The constitution recognises provinces as autonomous local government units. Since 1990, and particularly since more recent constitutional amendments, the provinces (like the municipalities) have gained broader statutory powers in addition to the functions delegated by the state and the regions. Here again, however, the system presents a mixed picture across different regions. The distribution of powers between different levels is not always clear because some regional laws have not been passed.

Metropolitan cities are inter-municipal structures recognised by the constitution on the same basis as the municipalities, provinces and regions. A law passed in 1990 provided for the creation of metropolitan cities in Italy’s nine biggest conurbations. Prior to that, they had no special status. These new entities are intended to replace the corresponding provinces.

The regions have the power to set the boundaries of these entities and to decide how to divide powers between the metropolitan city and its constituent municipalities.

Regional level :

The lion’s share of local government reforms between 1946 and 2001 focused on the regions.

Italy has 15 “ordinary” regions and 5 “special-status” regions (Sardinia, Sicily and three regions along its northern border). These “special-status” regions, created between 1945 and 1953, enjoyed greater financial autonomy along with special powers on cultural and language (bilingualism) matters. The other 15 regions were created in 1970.

Italy’s regions have legislative powers, and regional laws have equal value to laws passed by the national government. Constitutional law no.3 of 2001 overhauled the distribution of powers between the state and the regions, granting greater powers to the regions. Although the state retains some exclusive powers, others are shared (laws passed by the region according to guidance issued by the state). In all other significant areas, power rests exclusively at the regional level.

On local public transport, for example, the region dictates the minimum service levels (quantity and quality) that local governments and their operators are required to provide, in some cases through formal “service agreements”. Regions also have responsibility for delegating various powers to the provinces and municipalities, on each occasion by passing a regional law. In practice, the delegated powers differ substantially from one region to the next.

Despite the 1990 and 1997 reforms, the state retained significant oversight of regional laws and administrative action. However, the situation changed dramatically following the two most recent constitutional amendments (1999 and 2001), which repealed almost all constitutional and legislative provisions on state supervision and oversight.

As such, the central government no longer has supervisory authority over the regions and local governments. Similarly, the regions no longer have supervisory authority over local governments . Instead, internal control mechanisms were established at each tier. Only the courts now have the power to intervene in a supervisory capacity.

An equally radical change has occurred on the issue of local government funding. In the past, financial matters were managed centrally, and subnational authorities obtained the majority of their funding via special or general transfers.

A little over half of municipal revenues came via transfers, of which three-quarters came from the state. The regions managed approximately 25% of public spending, and the provinces and municipalities a little under 20%. The under-resourcing of these authorities was at odds with their constitutionally guaranteed political independence.

Following a series of laws and the most recent constitutional amendment (2001), local governments gained their own, substantial sources of funding. At the same time, the central government is transferring powers to the regions, provinces and municipalities, and exercising these powers will push up local government expenditure by approximately 50%.

The central government has nevertheless retained control of powerful financial incentive instruments for both the regions and other local governments, as well as influential planning tools.

In summary, the distribution of powers between Italy’s central government and other authorities has changed dramatically since 1990. In some quarters, there are even vague hopes for more radical reforms and further moves towards a federal system.

The current institutional landscape reflects a trade-off between several political camps:

  • the “regionalist” camp, which argues for more powers to be transferred to the regions, rather than to the municipalities and provinces
  • the “localist” camp, which calls for a direct relationship between first-tier authorities and central government to guard against the creeping influence of the regions
  • the “centralist” camp, which is wary of transferring too much power to the subnational levels.

Given that opinions on this subject differ wildly in the north and south of the country, it stands to reason that the institutional landscape is likely to remain fluid and that Italy will continue on the path towards German-style federalism, albeit in fits and starts.

A law passed in 2012 provided for a reduction in the number of provinces, as follows:

  • each province must have at least 350,000 inhabitants
  • each province must cover a surface area of at least 2,500 km².

The plan, backed by then-prime minister Matteo Renzi, was intended to simplify Italy’s cluttered administrative landscape and, more importantly, to achieve cost savings. The measures also included transforming some provinces into metropolitan cities.

There were brief discussions about abolishing the intermediary level of local government (the provinces), but these plans have since been shelved. Nevertheless, some provinces – especially those with fewer than 300,000 inhabitants – were to be abolished unless they enjoyed special status. The number of provinces was therefore expected to drop from 110 (100 provinces and 10 metropolitan cities at present) to 75 in 2016.

The provinces of Rome, Turin, Milan, Venice, Genoa, Bologna, Florence, Bari, Naples and Reggio Calabria would eventually be abolished and replaced simultaneously with nine metropolitan cities (Turin, Milan, Venise, Genoa, Bologna, Florence, Bari, Naples and Reggio Calabria), plus the Metropolitan City of Rome Capital. Each new metropolitan city would have the same boundaries as the former province, and the powers formally enjoyed by the 110 provinces would have been transferred to the municipalities and regions.

The Italian parliament approved the law abolishing the provinces in their current format in early February 2016, but it was included in a wide-ranging referendum in December 2016 that was rejected at the ballot box, causing Matteo Renzi to resign. The plans remain on the back burner for the time being.