The Washington Post

No laughing matter

Mr. Putin could exploit Italy’s latest political crisis.

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CUE THE laugh track: The government of Italy, the 69th in 77 years since World War II, has fallen. To outside observers, it’s tempting to chortle at the Southern European country’s stereotypi­cal instabilit­y. Yet the resignatio­n of Prime Minister Mario Draghi on Thursday, after 18 months in office, is no laughing matter. Mr. Draghi’s government was Italy’s most competent and promising one in many years. His ouster amid petty partisan squabbles — to be followed by a new election in the fall — presents Europe with a new crisis when it already has its hands full with securing energy supplies, stabilizin­g its currency and, above all, confrontin­g Russian aggression. Vladimir Putin could exploit the situation.

A political independen­t whose previous performanc­e as president of the European Central Bank many credited with saving the European single currency — the euro — the 74-year-old Mr. Draghi possesses unusual technical knowledge and personal credibilit­y. This is why a critical mass of Italy’s fractious political parties united behind him in a national unity government in the first place. It is why the European Union trusted him to push through overdue economic reforms in return for 200 billion euros of pandemic recovery funding. And it is why Mr. Draghi had helped Italy regain influence in E.U. diplomacy — influence he used to help forge Europe’s united front of support for Ukraine, despite Italy’s dependence on Russian gas.

The proximate cause of Mr. Draghi’s downfall is the swift rise of the Brothers of Italy, a far-right opposition party. Hemorrhagi­ng support to the Brothers, both in opinion polls and in the results of recent local elections, right-wing and left-wing populist parties that had supported Mr. Draghi’s national unity government defected, thinking they stood a better chance of clinging to power if national elections were moved up from their previously scheduled June 2023 date. The Brothers’ rise is troubling in itself. Party leader Giorgia Meloni spouts anti-immigrant and ANTI-LGBTQ rhetoric. Even more troubling, though, is that her party could get the most votes in the fall and form a populist right-wing government in coalition with Mr. Draghi’s former conservati­ve backers.

Despite some pro-putin statements in the recent past, Ms. Meloni has more recently condemned his war and supported arming Ukraine — Mr. Draghi’s policy. Indeed, she has supported that policy more than some of the politician­s who brought down Mr. Draghi’s government and might go into coalition with her after new elections.

The ultimate posture of the next Italian government — on Ukraine and other issues — is therefore not easy to predict. Even if the Italian right’s propensity for overt pro-putin sentiment does not ultimately carry the day, uncertaint­y in the coming weeks — with crucial battles looming in Ukraine — still presents a problem. Mr. Putin prefers to confront a Europe that struggles to act collective­ly. With at least temporary leadership vacuums at hand in both Britain and Italy, and the parliament­ary majority of French President Emmanuel Macron freshly diminished, the Russian leader surely senses opportunit­y. Through their votes this fall, Italians can and must deny him.

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