Italian constitutional referendum, 1946

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Italian constitutional referendum, 1946
2 June 1946
(with Constituent Assembly election)
→ 2001

Repubblica o Monarchia?
Republic or Monarchy?
Republic Monarchy
Emblem of Italy.svg Lesser coat of arms of the Kingdom of Italy (1890).svg
Response Republic Monarchy
Votes 12,717,923 10,719,284
Percentage 54.3% 45.7%
Result YesY
Republic established
Not selected
Monarchy abolished
Italian referendum 1946 support for republic.svg

A constitutional referendum was held in Italy on 2 June 1946,[1] a key event of Italian contemporary history. Until 1946, Italy was a kingdom ruled by the House of Savoy, kings of Italy since the Risorgimento and previously rulers of Savoy. However, Benito Mussolini, enjoying the support of the reigning monarch, imposed fascism after the 28 October 1922 March on Rome, eventually engaging Italy in World War II alongside Nazi Germany. In 1946, Italy became a republic after the results of a popular referendum. Monarchists had suspicions of fraud, but were never allowed to prove these. A Constituent Assembly was elected at the same time.[1]


Referendum Exhibition in Genoa, Italy

The Italian referendum was intended only to determine whether the head of state should come from a family dynasty or be elected by popular vote. Democracy was not a new concept in Italian politics. The Kingdom of Piedmont had become a constitutional monarchy with the liberalizing reforms of King Charles Albert's famous Albertine Statute in 1848. Suffrage, initially limited to select citizens, was gradually expanded; in 1911, the government of Giovanni Giolitti introduced universal suffrage for male citizens. In this period, the provisions of the Statute were often not observed, however. Instead, the elected Chamber and the Head of Government took major roles. At the beginning of the 20th century, many observers thought that, by comparison to other countries, Italy was developing in the direction of a modern democracy. Essential issues that needed to be resolved included the relationship of the Kingdom with the Roman Catholic Church.

File:Vittorio Emanuele III 1936.jpg
King Vittorio Emanuele III in his uniform as Marshal of Italy, 1936

A crisis arose in Italian society as a result of the First World War, social inequalities, and the consequent tension between Marxist and other left-wing parties on one side and conservative liberals on the other. This crisis led to the advent of Fascism, which destroyed freedoms and civil rights and established a dictatorship, breaking the continuity of the still fragile new parliamentary tradition. The support of the ruling elite and especially the monarchy was crucial for the seizure of power by Benito Mussolini. After the March on Rome, King Victor Emmanuel III refused to sign a decree to declare a state of siege, and asked Mussolini to form a new government. The King's decisions were made in accordance with the Statuto, but in opposition to the parliamentary practices of the Italian liberal state, the Fascist Party having a little number of MPs only.

After the invasion of Italy by Allied forces in 1943, Italy and its government were split in two. Mussolini's Grand Fascist Council, with the co-operation of the King, overthrew Mussolini and established a new government headed by Marshal Pietro Badoglio. Germany, concerned with the new government's intentions to negotiate peace with the Allies, invaded and occupied Northern Italy. German paratroopers rescued Mussolini from the hilltop hotel (Operation Oak) in which he had been imprisoned by the new government. Under pressure from Adolf Hitler, Mussolini established the Italian Social Republic to administer the German-occupied territory. Mussolini declared that the monarchy had been overthrown, and began to establish the apparatus of the new state. The Italian Social Republic was headquartered in the town of Salò, and is commonly known as the Republic of Salo.

Southern Italy, meanwhile, was nominally under the control of the new legitimist government of Badoglio, continuing as the Kingdom of Italy. Rome descended into chaos as fighting erupted between Mussolini loyalists and supporters of the new government, as well as leftist opponents of fascism who emerged from hiding. The King and the Badoglio government left Rome to seek the protection of the Allied forces that occupied the South. With half of Italian territory occupied by the Germans and the rest by the Allies, the restoration of civil rights was abandoned due to the complete disorder in the country. The pre-Fascist-era parties had been disbanded, had only clandestine limited activity and had become out of touch with the population. Consequently, the relationships between these parties, and the balance of power was left to be decided at a later, quieter time. Some political forces organized the Resistance and received a strong popular consensus, but it was impossible to determine what they represented without an election, which could not be held because of the chaotic situation. Almost all the Resistance was anti-monarchist. A temporary alliance between them and the Badoglio government was created by the decision of Joseph Stalin and Palmiro Togliatti, secretary of the Italian Communist Party, to postpone the problem of the state organisation and focus all efforts on the struggle against Hitler's puppet state in the North.

At the end of the war, Italy was a severely damaged country, with innumerable victims, a destroyed economy, and a desperate general condition. The defeat left the country deprived of the Empire it had fought for in the past two decades, and occupied by foreign soldiers. For some years after 1945, internal, politically motivated fighting continued.

The emergence of political forces to replace fascism could not occur until the internal conflict ended and elections could be held. After fighting had died down, a few months were needed before attention could be given to institutional matters. The first important question regarded the royal family, blamed by many for the fascist regime, the war, and the defeat.

Republican traditions in Italy traditionally hark back to the Roman Republic and the Medieval Communes, in which a wide spectrum of people took part in the business of government, but remained largely theoretical, as in the conclusion of Machiavelli's Il Principe. The struggle for a Republican Italy independent of foreign powers had been started by Giuseppe Mazzini in the 19th century. The movement Giustizia e Libertà, which continued the traditional Mazzinian ideology, was the second important force during the resistance. It posed the question of the form of the state as a fundamental precondition to developing any further agreements with the other parties. Giustizia e Libertà joined the Comitato di Liberazione Nazionale (National Liberation Committee, CLN). The various competing political factions agreed that a popular referendum would be held to determine the future choice of Head of State.


As the Allies advanced down the peninsula, it became apparent that Victor Emmanuel III was too compromised by his earlier support of Mussolini to have any further role. Accordingly, in April 1944, he turned over most of his powers to Crown Prince Umberto. When Rome was liberated on 4 June, Victor Emmanuel relinquished his remaining powers to Umberto and named him Lieutenant General of the Realm, making the Crown Prince de facto head of state.

However, Victor Emmanuel retained the title of king until his final abdication in May 1946. Umberto then formally ascended the throne as Umberto II. It has been said that the abdication had been imposed by opponents, but the royal house, too, had an interest in the manoeuvre. It was convenient for the House of Savoy, in fact, to have a popular king "on stage" at that crucial moment. Umberto was more acceptable to the Italian people: he and his wife Maria José were young, elegant and cultivated, and presented a stark contrast to the old, rough Victor Emmanuel who was unknown for any particular activity, apart from his collection of coins (114,000 items). Umberto was relatively well received by the people from the moment of his crowning, even if his wife (a foreigner) was kept at some distance. He was commonly called Il Re di Maggio (the King of May), with reference to his brief rule of forty days.

Umberto's few acts were however generally seen, post facto, as correct and responsible. He repeatedly calmed the population by declaring that he would accept the election results. He did, in the event, accept the results with magnanimity: in his final farewell speech he invited Italians to loyally serve as patriots, absolving them from their loyalty to the crown.

Maria José's internal and international relationships (she had had contacts with leftist parties and former enemies since the beginning of the war) were supposed to have been of some potential importance at the right moment. But she was not able to produce the expected consensus around the Quirinal. Respected as the wife of an esteemed man, she was in fact the symbol of the uncertain, irresolute, ambiguous tendency of the Savoy dynasty to be open to any possibly safe compromise.


A decree by Umberto II, issued as a General Lieutenant of the government (decreto legge luogotenenziale 25 giugno 1944, n. 151) during Ivanoe Bonomi’s time in office as Prime Minister, prescribed that a Constitutional Assembly would be organized after the war to draft a constitution and to choose an institutional form for the state.

The institutional debate was accelerated in the spring of 1946.

  • On 1 March, the government of Alcide De Gasperi gave its approval for the definitive scope of the referendum to be Republic versus Monarchy.
  • On 12 March, the government called together the electors to meet on 2 June, for the referendum and the election of the Constituent Assembly.
  • On 18 March, the King issued the decrees together with a letter in which he anticipated his intention of abdicating in favour of his son Umberto II (who was named lieutenant general); the date for abdication being the anniversary of the Allied forces’ entry into Rome.
  • On 25 April, at the congress of Democrazia Cristiana, Attilio Piccioni revealed that, after an internal investigation, the opinion of the members of the party was 60% in favour of the republic, 17% in favour of the monarchy, and 23% undecided.
  • On 9 May, Victor Emanuele left Italy from Naples by ship, after a long meeting with Umberto.
  • On 10 May, early in the morning, Umberto made a public announcement and became the King of Italy. That afternoon, the government censured Admiral Raffaele de Courten, who had set aside a battle cruiser for Vittorio Emanuele's exile that was supposed to be used to bring home Italian prisoners. It was also decided that the traditional institutional formula by which any decree or sentence was released in the name of "N, King of Italy, by God's grace and the nation's will", would be reduced to the simpler "N, King of Italy". Taking effect on the day Umberto became king, this act did not present a warm welcome for the new king, especially since the government had not given him advance notice of its intention. Nevertheless, the king's main powers were "frozen" until the referendum.

The political campaign for the referendum was framed by incidents, especially in northern Italy, where monarchists were attacked by both republicans and post-fascists of the Italian Social Republic. Following a second decree (decreto legge luogotenenziale 16 marzo 1946, n. 98), during the government of De Gasperi, a referendum was held on 2 June and 3 June 1946 (2 June later was named as a national holiday). The question was as simple as possible: Republic or Monarchy. South Tyrol and the areas of Trieste and Gorizia didn't take part in the referendum.

Following Italian law, the results were checked by the Corte di Cassazione (the highest judicial Court at that time), as expected. A problem arose when the Court, itself divided between monarchists and republicans, provisionally declared a republican victory on 10 June, but postponing the final result to 18 June. To avoid huge dangers of political riots due to the Court's delay, the government itself illegally and without any constitutional authority declared a republic and appointed De Gasperi as the provisional Head of State on 13 June.


Choice Votes %
Republic 12,717,923 54.3
Monarchy 10,719,284 45.7
Invalid/blank votes 1,498,136
Total 24,935,343 100
Registered voters/turnout 28,005,449 89.1
Source: Nohlen & Stöver

The table of results shows some relevant differences in the different parts of Italy, and this was the object of several interpretations. At first sight, the peninsula seemed to be drastically cut in two areas: the North for the republic (with 66.2%), the South for the monarchy (with 63.8%), as if they were two different, respectively homogeneous countries. Lombardy may have been the region that would alone produce 5 or 10 times as much votes in majority for a republic, than what it came to in the rest of Italy. By contrast, Campania would produce a larger majority for the status quo.

  • Republican regions and percentage of votes for the republic
    • Trentino (85.0%)
    • Emilia-Romagna (77.0%)
    • Umbria (71.9%)
    • Tuscany (71.6%)
    • The Marches (70.1%)
    • Liguria (69.0%)
    • Lombardy (64.1%)
    • Aosta Valley (63.5%)
    • Veneto (59.3%)
    • Piedmont (56.9%).
  • Monarchist regions and percentage of votes for the republic
    • Lazio (48.6%)
    • Abruzzo and Molise (43.1%)
    • Basilicata (40.6%)
    • Calabria (39.7%)
    • Sardinia (39.1%)
    • Sicily (35.3%)
    • Apulia (32.7%)
    • Campania (23.5%).
Popular vote


The new republican constitution was released together with a group of minor dispositions, the 13th of which prescribed that the male members of the House of Savoy must stay in perpetual exile. This disposition was abolished in October 2002, and Vittorio Emanuele, Umberto II's son, entered Italy with his family in the following December, for a short formal visit to the Pope. However, in a deal with the government, he renounced all claims to the throne. Even without this to consider, Article 139 of the new constitution explicitly states that the republican form of government cannot be changed by constitutional amendment, thus foreclosing any attempt to restore the monarchy short of adopting a new constitution.

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Nohlen, D & Stöver, P (2010) Elections in Europe: A data handbook, p1047 ISBN 978-3-8329-5609-7

External links