The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Danger lurks after Italy’s shocking election

Leader of Brothers of Italy Giorgia Meloni at the party's election headquarters in Rome on Monday. (Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters)

Italy has voted for a new government, likely to be led by a prime minister whose party arose from the ashes of post-World War II Italian fascism. The rise of Giorgia Meloni, the firebrand ethno-nationalist seemingly victorious in Sunday’s elections, has sent shock waves through Europe and triggered fears that Italy might be the Achilles’ heel in Western resolve to resist Russia’s bloody campaign in Ukraine.

In fact, it would be a stretch to regard Ms. Meloni, who would be Italy’s first female premier, as a fascist. And, having dropped her former admiration for Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, she has been unstinting in backing NATO’s support for Ukraine — although the same cannot be said of her probable coalition partners in Italy’s legislature. She has also tempered her erstwhile rhetoric suggesting she would splinter the European Union, possibly because Italy depends on enormous infusions of E.U. pandemic relief funds.

Yet there remains ample cause for concern about Ms. Meloni, who is set to govern one of the world’s largest economies despite her own modest credentials in government. She is the latest in a string of extremists who have performed well in European elections this year, including nationalists in France, Hungary and Sweden. Her apparent victory is more evidence that far-right leaders are ascendant in a continent buffeted by immigration, economic head winds and, on its eastern flank, the most destructive war in three-quarters of a century.

Political upheaval is the default in Italy, which has had 69 governments in the 77 years since World War II ended. Still, Ms. Meloni’s premiership would be a watershed event. Amid a drumbeat of anti-immigrant rhetoric — she warns darkly that ethnic Italians are in danger of “replacement” — she has advanced the farfetched idea of a naval blockade to stop unauthorized foreigners from reaching Italian shores. That’s unlikely to work. It’s also a toxic echo of the fierce antisemitism of Mussolini, the World War II dictator whom Ms. Meloni once openly admired.

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Her intolerance is also directed at LGBTQ people, for whom her government might make life more challenging in the only major E.U. country that has not legalized same-sex marriage. Framing her views as pro-family, she has vowed to block same-sex adoptions and surrogacy.

Her party and its right-wing coalition partners include figures who might threaten free and fair elections if given their druthers; many would emulate Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has gutted key aspects of that country’s democracy. However, Ms. Meloni’s bloc will lack the votes in Italy’s Parliament to tamper with constitutional protections for Italian democratic institutions.

The lurking danger of a Meloni government is to Europe’s ability to withstand Mr. Putin’s attempts to break Western anti-Kremlin sanctions, using Europe’s dependence on Russian energy exports as leverage. Italy’s economy is chronically anemic, and many Italians will suffer as Moscow’s pressure mounts. That will test Ms. Meloni’s determination to hold the line, especially given that one of her coalition partners, Matteo Salvini of the League party, opposes sanctions, and the other, former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, is an apologist for the Russian authoritarian.

Washington, NATO and the E.U. must use their considerable leverage to ensure Ms. Meloni’s spine remains stiff.

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