The Italian Senate, the upper house, has 315 seats. For elections to the Senate, votes are cast regionally with 6 seats allocated to Italians living abroad. Both houses are elected every five years.
Unlike the British and American system, where votes are cast for individual candidates, the Italian voting system is based on a 'Party List' system, where each party's candidates are ranked in order of priority. If a party wins 10 seats, for example, then the first 10 candidates on their list are selected and take their seats in Parliament.
Coalitions are actively encouraged by the system. In forming a coalition to fight an election, individual parties must sign up to a coalition document and agree to support a single, nominated leader.
If a coalition wins the election with less than the 340 seats required for a working majority, then they are assigned additional seats, equivalent to a 54% majority.
The party or coalition with the largest vote is asked to form a government by the President of the Republic. This government must then receive a vote of support from both houses before it can exercise power. Thereafter, it is supported by Parliament through a series of 'votes of confidence' in the two houses. Parliament can request a new vote at any time, once a certain proportion of members wish it. If the government fails to gain enough support it must resign.
At this point the President can ask the parties to create a new government that does have the support of Parliament or he can attempt to create a new government of his own design. If either of those options fail to win support, Parliament is dissolved and new elections are held.
This electoral law has been widely criticised by the centre left parties, as they believe it favours parties from the right. Reform of the electoral laws is currently being proposed.
Executive power rests with the 'Council of Ministers', or Cabinet, which is led by the Prime Minister (President of the Council of Ministers). Legislative power rests primarily with the two houses of Parliament, and secondarily with the Council of Ministers. The Judiciary is independent of Parliament.
The President is the head of state and is independent of all branches of government. As the head of state, the President of the Republic represents the unity of the nation and has taken over many of the duties previously undertaken by the monarchy.
The President serves as a focal point between the three branches of power: he is elected by the lawmakers, he appoints the executive, and is the President of the judiciary. The President is also the commander-in-chief of the armed forces.
The President of the Republic is elected for a seven year term by an electoral college which consists of both houses of Parliament together with 58 regional representatives. His election needs a wide majority that ensures that the elected President enjoys wide support across all political parties.
While it is not forbidden by law, no president has ever served two terms. Usually, the President tries to stay out of day to day politics, and to be an institutional guarantee for all those involved in the political process. As the guardian of the Constitution of Italy, the President can also reject openly anti-constitutional laws by refusing to sign them.
The President of the Republic appoints the Council of Ministers and its President (the Prime Minister). The Prime Minister advises the President of the Republic on the composition of the rest of the Council of Ministers (the cabinet), which comprises the ministers in charge of the various governmental departments. In practice, the President accepts Prime Minister's advice, and submits the proposed Council for a vote of confidence from both parliamentary chambers.