By Crispian Balmer
ROME (Reuters) -Giorgia Meloni, likely to be Italy's next prime minister after elections this month, is unfit to lead the country, her critics said on Friday after she backed Hungarian leader Viktor Orban in a row with Europe.
Meloni is widely expected to lead a conservative alliance, including her own Brothers of Italy party, the League and Forza Italia, to victory in the Sept. 25 ballot and give the country its most right-wing administration since World War Two.
Both the Brothers of Italy and the League have close ties to Orban and rallied to his side on Thursday when the European parliament voted by 433 to 123 to denounce the "existence of a clear risk of a serious breach" by Hungary of core EU values.
Meloni defended her support for Orban, saying the vote meant her old friend might now move closer to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"The intelligent choice would be to bring European nations closer together rather than push them apart," she told Rai radio. "We cannot give allies to our adversaries."
But Meloni's own opponents roundly condemned her and League leader Matteo Salvini for backing Orban, who has been locked in battle with the EU for years over alleged human rights abuses and undermining the independence of the judiciary and academia.
"I say that either Meloni and Salvini backtrack and publicly acknowledge they were wrong about Orban, or I say they are unfit to govern Italy," said former prime minister Giuseppe Conte, leader of the left-leaning 5-Star Movement.
Enrico Letta, head of the centre-left Democratic Party, echoed his sentiments, calling Orban "a danger to the whole of Europe". Orban himself dismissed the EU parliamentary vote on Friday as a "boring joke".
DRAGHI URGES CAUTION
The European Commission is expected to recommend later this week suspending billions earmarked for Budapest from the bloc's 1.1 trillion euro ($1.1 trillion) shared budget for 2021-27.
Member countries would then have three months to decide on the Commission's recommendation in a majority vote, meaning Rome alone could not block such a move even if Meloni took power.
Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi urged his eventual successor to pick their foreign friends carefully.
"Our allies are Germany, France and the other European countries that defend the rule of law," he told reporters.
"One should ask oneself, which partners best help me to protect Italian interests? Who counts most amongst these partners?"
Both Meloni and Salvini have toned down some of their more eurosceptic views in recent years, but they still regularly lambast "Brussels bureaucrats" during campaign rallies and say they will put Italian interests above those of Europe.
In an unusual move, their ally Silvio Berlusconi, who leads Forza Italia, warned that he would quit a future coalition if he thought his partners were jeopardising Italy's ties with Europe and NATO.
"If these people, our allies, whom I trust and respect, were to go off in different directions, we would not stand for it," he told Rai television on Thursday.
(Additional reporting by Alvise Armellini; Editing by Toby Chopra and Gavin Jones)