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Italian right fights like rats in a sack on the brink of power

The political chaos at home in Britain is almost matched by that in Italy

Image: The New European

For Giorgia Meloni, winning was the easy part. Nearly four weeks after the radical right wing politician came top in Italy’s general elections in a three-party alliance, they’re still fighting like rats in a sack.

With Italy’s most right wing government since Benito Mussolini expected to be sworn in soon, for weeks Meloni had little to show apart from a senate speaker with a taste for fascist memorabilia and irritating headlines. She has had to fight and win a running batlte with her alliance partners – most notably former prime minister Silvio Bersluconi – before they could all go to president Sergil Mattarella to say they were ready to form a government. 

It’s a sorry sign of the difficulties she will face trying to keep her government together. 

Although Matteo Salvini, the anti-immigrant firebrand leader of the League Party is known for sabotaging his own governments and is a bitter rival of Meloni, the biggest spat so far has been her ongoing tussle with the volatile Berlusconi. And it reached serious proportions after he followed days of quarrelling about ministries with explosive comments defending Vladimir Putin. 

In audio released by the Italian news outlet La Presse, Berlusconi can be heard lauding Putin’s aim to replace the government of Volodymyr Zelensky with a “decent, sensible” administration. The recording, leaked from a meeting of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party, also had him talking of “reconnecting” with his old friend Putin, blaming Zelensky for inflaming the war by attacking Russian-backed separatist regions in Donbas and declaring himself the only true leader in the West.

A furious Meloni, who backs sending arms to Ukraine and has been careful to distance herself from Russia and erstwhile populist allies who support Moscow, slapped him down hard. “Italy, with its head high, is part of Europe and the Atlantic alliance,” she said. “Whoever doesn’t agree with this cornerstone cannot be part of the government, at the cost of not having a government.”

The risks to her as yet unformed administration are obvious, but not pushing back would have been worse, given that she is desperately trying to cultivate respectability and dispel suspicions of her Brothers of Italy (FdI) party’s neo-fascist roots. Berlusconi responded by grovelling, but already the proposed foreign minister –  former European Parliament president Antonio Tajani, has been distancing himself from his party boss. Meloni might be hoping that deputies Forza Italia will defect to FdI, making her task of government-building easier. 

To her credit, she has stood firm against Berlusconi where others might have folded. 

“Well played all round by Brothers of Italy lately,” Tweeted Daniele Albertazzi, Professor of Politics at the University of Surrey after the meeting with Matarella, which she attended with the tightly leashed Berlusconi and Salvini, on the apparent understanding that she woudl be doing the talking. “You underestimate them at your peril.’

In the end, this government is acutally being formed quite quickly by Italian standards. Meloni has moved fast, because she know she holds the cards, as her votes are more than twice her allies’ support combined amount. According to Corriere delle Sera, she has told her deputies that Berlusconi was like a scorpion with a frog, which “stings even though he knows he will die.” 

Meloni will become Italy’s first woman prime minister. But her pitch as a reasonable conservative seeking a cabinet of the best available talent hangs on a knife-edge, trashed by her allies. So far, a Forza Italia senator has proposed a law to make abortion murder – even though she has promised not to row back on termination rights – and her new senate speaker has criticised sanctions on Russia.

Before the Putin debacle, she had already been characterized as “bossy”, “patronizing” and “offensive” in scribblings by Berlusconi after her refusal to give a senior role to Licia Ronzulli, a nurse-turned senator who acts as his personal assistant and has organised some of his sleazy “bunga bunga” parties. She sent a riposte — that he forgot to say she was also “not blackmailable”.

Meloni then had to wrangle with him over the justice ministry, which she wanted to give to a former member of the Clean Hands anti-corruption team, Carlo Nordio. Berlusconi then made the unauthorised announcement that his pick, former senate speaker Elizabetta Caselatti, was to take Justice – to denials by FdI. In a typical example of his style of threatening one-upmanship, he has also slipped in a reminder that Meloni’s partner, a journalist, was one of his employees at Mediaset. 

This was always likely to happen. Berlusconi and Salvini had just brought down their own unity government led by Mario Draghi. Salvini also sabotaged a previous government while still in it. The former interior minister and the 86-year-old Berlusconi are dying to regain their previous popularity and influence, and won’t spare Meloni in that quest. They are both unpredictable, egotistical, opportunist and damaging. It’s not going to be an easy ride, but there was at least some expectation of a short honeymoon. The only surprise is that it wasn’t Salvini that struck the first blows.

“It does not seem to me to be a majority capable of giving a solid government to the country. They are only able to give the country an internal war, a permanent conflict,” was the verdict Enrico Letta, leader of the opposition Democratic Party (PD),.

At a snail’s pace, the cabinet took shape. A League deputy is likely to get the interior ministry, and the poisoned chalice of economy minister could go to Giancarlo Giorgetti, one of the League’s most moderate pro-European figures, who was industry minister in Draghi’s outgoing government. Facing him is a public debt close to 145% of national output, record inflation and high energy costs that are already hurting families and energy companies.

The stakes for Meloni are high on many levels. As well as the practical problems of the economy and a European war, she wants to get her positioning right. She doesn’t seem interested in the outrageous, law-breaking populism of past hard right leaders – for her the aim could be to secure her position as an Atlanticist with conservative, market-friendly economic policies and a moderate foreign relations approach, combined with hardline, family-focused, anti-immigration policies at home. Essentially, a version of the US Republicans now, but better. If this works, it could symbolize the mainstreaming of a “grown-up” European far right – good for them, but not necessary for European democracy.

To keep this dream alive, Meloni needs to hold her ground. Salvini, who clearly wants a return to his old job at the interior ministry to make his mark as a tough anti-immigrant in and reboot his image among the right, is not getting it. He is, after all, still on trial for “kidnapping” refugees while hampering their rescue last time round.

Instead, he appears poised for transport and infrastructure – a cabinet post where he could, in theory, still deny access to Italy’s ports. But it also has pitfalls. Since it affects people’s everyday lives, his failures would be there for all to see. Alexander Clarkson, lecturer for European studies at King’s College, London, characterized this proposed appointment as Meloni making sure “Matteo Salvini becomes Minister for Getting The Blame When Things Go Wrong.”

It’s cold comfort for the ambitious Salvini that the League’s deputy secretary Lorenzo Fontana, a Putin admirer, was elected president of the chamber of deputies. But he has taken everything on the chin so far – no doubt steeling himself for future rabble-rousing. He even styled himself as a peacemaker, calling for a truce between Berlusconi and Meloni. He reportedly said, of Berlusconi: “I warned him, ‘Look, Giorgia has the numbers, you can’t get in the way.’”

Meloni has been chalking up victories. When Berlusconi refused to vote for Meloni’s choice of speaker over the justice ministry decision, she got him appointed with opposition support. She summoned him to a meeting at FdI offices rather than one of his villas as usual, making sure he knew his place. When he emerged, having given up his fight over Ronzulli, Berlusconi said Meloni wanted to “have him around” to give her advice – a feeble clutching at straws that signalled the humiliation of the man who, ten years before, was Meloni’s boss after making her the youngest minister in his government.

“The defeat of the Forza Italia leader is total,” La Repubblica opined, likening the clash to an episode of Game of Thrones.

But Berlusconi is never finished. As Meloni tried to appoint ministers, he was waxing lyrical to his party about re-established relations with Putin, according to the video released by La Presse.

“Putin sent me 20 bottles of vodka and a very sweet letter on my birthday. I  replied with bottles of Lambrusco and an equally sweet letter. I had been declared the first of his five true friends,” he was heard saying.

It gets worse. He also reportedly said he was worried because Russian ministers told him that Italy was at war with Russia because of its support for Ukraine, and that he could not express his own opinion because it would be a disaster if the press found out.

In contrast to Meloni’s pro-Ukraine stance, Berlusconi and Salvini – who once went to Moscow wearing a T-shirt with Putin’s face on it – have politically radioactive views on the war, which they have struggled to contain. They’re only in the alliance out of expediency – there is little love lost there.

It’s no secret that Meloni had to bargain hard before the elections even to be in this position, reportedly threatening to pull the plug on the alliance unless the others agreed that the leader of the top-polling party would automatically become the premiership candidate. Giorgetti had described the agreement as “a miracle.”

She also has to reckon with her own party’s demons. As Meloni continues on her journey from teenager who praised Mussolini towards political credibility, it’s clear she has only done a partial job of hiding the fascist nostalgists. One such character is Ignazio La Russa, a key player behind her success, who is now senate speaker – making him the second-highest official in government. His collection of fascist heirlooms, such as medals and Mussolini statues, hardly screams “moderate conservative”.

This was put in stark relief when the first session of parliament, where La Russa was elected, was opened by Holocaust survivor Liliana Segre, 92, a senator-for-life. Segre, the only member of her Jewish family to survive the Auschwitz concentration camp, reminded the assembly that it was nearly the 100th anniversary of Mussolini’s March on Rome – the mass demonstration that led to his dictatorship, his 1938 racial laws and alliance with Hitler.

“It is impossible for me not to feel a kind of vertigo, remembering how the same little girl who on a day like this in 1938, disconsolate and lost, was forced by racist laws to leave her primary school bench empty, today finds herself on the most prestigious bench in the senate,” she said, choking up.

The 200 deputies stood up and applauded. This included La Russa.

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