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Opinion | In Italy, a Sharp Turn Back to the Center


Given that Italy has had more than five dozen governments in 73 years, the emergence of another unlikely and unstable coalition might look, in the phrase often attributed to Yogi Berra, like déjà vu all over again. Yet in the current wave of populism in Europe and around the world, the success of the Italian Parliament in pushing back against a right-wing firebrand bears a closer look.

The stage for the turnover was set in August, when Matteo Salvini, head of the far-right, anti-immigrant League party that for over a year had been in a ruling coalition with the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, decided to cash in on his popularity and ask the Italian electorate to hand him “full powers” in new elections.

Instead, the prime minister — a law professor named Giuseppe Conte, who had been pulled from obscurity last year to serve as a figurehead leader of that coalition government — delivered a potent speech in the Italian Senate upbraiding his former patron, Mr. Salvini, for “political opportunism” in “following his own interests and those of his party.”

Mr. Conte then cobbled together an improbable coalition of two parties more usually at each other’s throats, the Five Star Movement and the center-left Democratic Party. On Monday, the government — now known popularly as Conte II, with Mr. Salvini in snarling opposition — easily won a vote of confidence and handed Mr. Conte back the ceremonial bell of the prime minister that he had held in the previous coalition government.

There’s no telling how long the new government will survive, given that Italy is suffering a long-running economic crisis that has bedeviled recent governments and that the new government is unlikely to turn things around unless it somehow persuades the European Union to loosen its fiscal constraints.

Mr. Salvini’s main goal in his abortive reach for more power was to challenge those constraints, if necessary by defying the E.U. Mr. Salvini was also known for his hard-line immigration policies and for leaning toward Russia and the authoritarian style of its president and away from Italy’s traditional European and Atlantic allies.

Still, the setback to the League and its far-right allies was a relief for the European Union and for moderate forces across the Continent. Some of Mr. Salvini’s harsher anti-migrant policies are likely to be toned down by the new interior minister, Luciana Lamorgese, a specialist in migration issues. And a member of the European Parliament, Roberto Gualtieri, was named economy minister, with the critical task of drafting a budget for 2020. Mr. Conte declared that the new government would be less contentious than his previous one. “We must recover sobriety and rigor so that our citizens can see renewed confidence in our institutions,” he said on resuming his duties.

It would be unduly rosy to depict the Italian Parliament’s brake on Mr. Salvini, a populist seeking “full powers,” as solely an altruistic defense of democracy — many members also risked losing their seats in new elections. But it was the second time in a week — following the British Parliament’s rejection of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s attempt to sneak in a no-deal Brexit by suspending the legislature — that a European legislature rose up to block a strong leader from going too far. That is something legislators in other states challenged by populist strongmen, including the United States, should take to heart.

The loud chants on Monday of “Elections! Elections!” from Mr. Salvini’s supporters in the Parliament chamber and on the streets outside confirmed that the League and its leader were not yet finished. But for the moment, power was in the hands of a law professor who argued that absent mutual respect, democracy risks becoming “only the mask of a new tyranny.”

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