In November 1917, the Italian army, which had been trying to seize the city of Trieste for two bloody years, was routed by the forces of the Central Powers at Caporetto, a small town near the border with present-day Slovenia. Thousands were killed and wounded; nearly 300,000 Italian troops were taken prisoner. Ever since, Italians have colloquially described any major setback, especially one that can be attributed to hubris or inadequate leadership, as a Caporetto.
On Sunday, December 4, Italian Premier Matteo Renzi experienced a Caporetto of his own. His ambitious strategy of making constitutional reform the centerpiece of his government’s legislative agenda was defeated when 60 percent of the electorate voted down his package of reforms. Analysts had expected a much closer result, so the defeat left Renzi’s credibility—already tattered before the vote—in shreds. Renzi has resigned and a formal government crisis has begun.
Renzi and his constitutional affairs minister, Maria Elena Boschi, took this major risk in order to make decision-making easier. The reform would have transformed the senate into a much smaller assembly representing Italy’s regions and big cities and would have sharply limited its role in passing ordinary legislation. Meanwhile, the senate would have no longer been able to express a vote of no confidence in the government. The other body of the legislature, the chamber of deputies, would have retained its powers. In brief, by weakening one body in favor of the other, Renzi hoped to eliminate the gridlock that resulted from so-called perfect bicameralism.
The constitutional reform was flanked by an electoral law, the Italicum, which gives a guaranteed majority in the chamber of deputies to any party (not coalition) capable of obtaining more than 40 percent of the vote, or to the winner of a runoff election between the two most-voted parties in the event that no single party reaches this threshold. Renzi’s opponents feared that a party chosen by a mere third or less of those voting in the first ballot could deriva autoritaria: a shift toward authoritarianism.
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