ITALY’S ELECTION on Sunday delivered another body blow to Europe’s already-wobbly democratic center. Two anti-establishment parties, including one on the xenophobic far-right, between them captured 50 percent of the vote, far more than traditional parties of the center-right and center-left. Though it’s far from clear what sort of government will emerge from what is likely to be a prolonged post-election scrum, Italy could join Central European states that have staked out a hostile stance toward the European Union — and liberal values more generally.
As elsewhere in Europe, a big driver of the electoral backlash was immigrants and refugees: More than 620,000 undocumented migrants have arrived in Italy since 2013, most of them from sub-Saharan Africa. Though the current center-left government succeeded in stemming the influx, far-right parties exploited popular hostility toward the arrivals — as well as toward Italy’s European Union partners, which were seen as having done little to help. The leader of the League party, Matteo Salvini, spewed xenophobic rhetoric and promised mass deportations; since his party outpolled that of former center-right prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, Mr. Salvini could lead a new government.
Another claimant will be the eccentric Five Star Movement, which won about 33 percent of the vote and is officially led by Luigi Di Maio, a 31-year-old with little experience. The party has softened its anti-E.U. stance, and is less hostile to migrants than the League. But it shares the far-right’s affection for Russian ruler Vladimir Putin, who is looking like the one unambiguous winner of the election. Any government that forms is likely to be hostile to Western efforts to counter Russian aggression in Ukraine, Syria and cyberspace.
Not surprisingly, the U.S. far-right is celebrating the Italian results, with President Trump’s former adviser Stephen K. Bannon calling them “crucial for the global populist movement” in an interview with the Corriere della Sera newspaper. Mr. Bannon is hoping for a coalition between the League and Five Star parties, which he called “the ultimate dream.” Fortunately, that appears less than likely, for now; the two parties have very different profiles, and Mr. Salvini, who is allied with Mr. Berlusconi and other far-right parties, suggested he wasn’t interested.
At best Italy will muddle through, as it frequently does, with a government that focuses on the country’s deep domestic problems — such as a 35 percent youth unemployment rate — and does not seek to blow up the European Union or NATO. But even such a benign outcome will raise the pressure on Europe’s remaining centrists, led by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, to provide solutions, both for their own restive societies and for Europe as a whole.
The good news of the weekend was that a new coalition government led by Ms. Merkel was finally approved by members of her partner Social Democratic Party — the result of an election last September in which the center was battered but not defeated. It now falls to Ms. Merkel to seek with Mr. Macron reforms that will promote growth in struggling E.U. countries such as Italy, while continuing to defend liberal democratic principles. At stake is nothing less than the survival of the West as the world has known it since 1945.