Italian President Sergio Mattarella on Sunday barred a coalition of euroskeptic parties from forming a government despite a clear mandate handed down by voters earlier this spring. The move amounted to nothing less than a bloodless coup d’état and laid bare the naked contempt for the vox populi among the Italian and European liberal establishment. Talk about liberalism without democracy.

The populist Five Star Movement (M5S) won the largest single share of ballots in March’s general election, followed by the hard-right League led by Matteo Salvini. Founded by a comedian, the M5S blends whimsical environmentalism–zero fossil fuels by 2050!–with hard-line anti-immigration and euroskeptic policies. The League, meanwhile, is a more conventional right-wing nationalist party in the mold of the National Front in France.

Yet Mattarella blocked M5S and the League from carrying out voters’ will, ostensibly over the coalition’s choice of economy minister, Paolo Savona, a former Bank of Italy official who has called for a “plan B to get out of the euro if necessary.” Savona has also compared German domination of the European Union with the Nazi occupation—an ahistorical and, indeed, vile remark, to be sure, but reason enough to undo the results of a general election?

Mattarella thought so. “The uncertainty about our position in the euro has alarmed Italian and foreign investors,” the president told reporters in justifying his move. His words suggest either that Mattarella is the most tin-eared politician on the Continent, or that he is utterly indifferent to the democratic compact that nominally holds his republic together. Both can be true.

Mattarella’s decision outraged even Paul Krugman, no friend of right-wing nationalists. “This is really awful,” the New York Times columnist tweeted. “You don’t have to like the populist parties who won a clear electoral mandate to be appalled at the attempt to exclude them from power . . . Faith in the single currency trumps democracy? Really? European institutions already suffering lack of legitimacy due to democratic deficit. This will make things much worse.”

Krugman is right (there, I said it). For starters, there is no guarantee that voters won’t return the same coalition to power in a do-over. The latest polls suggest that Salvini’s League has gained support in recent weeks. Mattarella, in other words, may have only strengthened Salvini’s hand. Yet if the League and M5S fare worse in a snap election this fall, the effect would be still more catastrophic for the long-term health of Italian democracy. The message to voters would be poisonous: Your votes are appreciated, but your political class answers to a higher electorate of investors and bondholders.

Liberals on both sides of the Atlantic spend a lot of time these days fretting about the threat posed by populists and nationalists to Western democracies. An entire cottage industry of writers and think-tankers has sprung up to palliate and address these liberal anxieties. But as the Italian example makes clear, it is more often liberals who short-circuit the democratic process when it doesn’t go their way. “Heads we win, tails you lose” is no way to play politics in a free society.

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