Leader of the Italian right-wing party Forza Italia Silvio Berlusconi PIERO CRUCIATTI/AFP/Getty Images

Will Italy Cross the Illiberal Rubicon?

Whatever the outcome of Italy's election, it will have far-reaching implications not just for Italy and the EU, but for the cause of democracy worldwide. Whether or not they realize it, Italy’s voters are about to choose not just among political parties, but also between political regimes.

PARIS – In 1841, the Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi completed his celebrated opera Nabucco. “Va, pensiero,” his famous aria describing the fate of the Hebrews in the desert, would go on to become a rallying cry for Italian patriots fighting for liberation from the Austrian Empire.

Then, in a sesquicentenary performance conducted by Riccardo Muti at the Teatro dell’Opera in Rome in 2011, Nabucco was put in the service of democracy. Silvio Berlusconi, the prime minister at the time, was present in the audience, and he would wake up the next day to headlines in the Italian press such as, “Berlusconi Overthrown by Verdi.” Of course, it would be more accurate to say that Berlusconi, who was forced to resign later that year, overthrew himself, through his displays of personal excess and financial corruption.

With Italy approaching a decisive parliamentary election on March 4, such historical references are useful once again. But whereas Italians were mobilizing against Austria in 1841, today they may be heading toward an “Austrian model” of governance by a coalition of the right and the extreme right. And whereas Berlusconi was falling from grace in 2011, he is now a potential kingmaker. At 81, he incarnates an aging and increasingly cynical Italy. Some voters are returning to him out of conviction; others because they fear the alternatives would be even worse.

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