Salvini vs Meloni: Can Italy’s far-right rivals put differences aside?

As Italy's far-right bloc looks set to win the upcoming elections, tension between coalition leaders Giorgia Meloni and Matteo Salvini raise doubts over the stability of the likely next government.

Matteo Salvini (League) and Giorgia Meloni (Borthers of Italy)
Political differences between Giorgia Meloni (Brothers of Italy) and Matteo Salvini (League) raise doubts over the stability of the far-right bloc. Photo by Luca PRIZIA / AFP

Matteo Salvini was once the poster boy of Italy’s far right but the popularity of Giorgia Meloni has reduced him to a junior – and potentially disruptive – partner in their election coalition.

Final opinion polls last week put Meloni’s post-fascist Brothers of Italy at more than 24 percent ahead of Sunday’s election, around twice that of Salvini’s anti-immigration League.

READ ALSO: Italy’s far right set for easy victory under Giorgia Meloni

Such a result on election day would allow her to claim the post of prime minister and decide the direction of their coalition, which also includes former premier Silvio Berlusconi’s more moderate right-wing Forza Italia.

It would be a disappointing turnout for Salvini, who was propelled to power after winning 17 percent of votes in the 2018 general elections, and securing a stunning 34 percent in the vote for the European Parliament the following year.

A key question will be whether the League leader can accept this diminished position or make trouble on issues on which he disagrees with Meloni, notably the Ukraine war. 


From his blunt criticism of the European Union, Muslims and Rome, his overt Catholicism – he brandished a rosary on his campaign tour – to his bare-chested partying by the sea, Salvini, 49, has cultivated an image as a man of the people.

He successfully led his once secessionist party – previously known as the Northern League – to become a national force, fuelled by anger against Brussels and the tens of thousands of migrants who arrive in Italy each year.

READ ALSO: : Debt and Russian sanctions: Why cracks are emerging in Italy’s far-right alliance

Yet, in recent years, he has been eclipsed by Meloni, who shares his eurosceptic, ‘Italians First’ platform but, despite her party’s neo-fascist roots, styles herself as a straight-talking but unthreatening “Christian mother”.

“Salvini has made some big mistakes, which tarnished his image,” Lorenzo De Sio, professor of political science at Rome’s Luiss University, told AFP.

Top of the list was the League leader’s “arrogance” in trying to bring down his coalition government in 2019, hoping to force new elections after his big win in the European elections, only to find himself in the opposition.

A key factor in Meloni’s rise was also her decision to stay out of Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s grand coalition formed in February 2021 – Brothers of Italy was the only party not to join, granting her an outsider status that has attracted many disgruntled voters.

“Meloni was free to vote with the government when she wanted, for example on Ukraine, but at the same time attacking the government whenever she wanted to preserve her identity,” De Sio said.

READ ALSO: Your ultimate guide to Italy’s crucial elections on Sunday

Former premier Silvio Berlusconi is also likely to be a difficult coalition partner, especially in the case of a landslide win by Meloni’s Brothers of Italy. Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP

Trouble ahead?

Though it no longer advocates leaving the EU’s single currency, Meloni’s party is eurosceptic and she has strongly backed the bloc’s sanctions against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.

By contrast, Salvini, a long-time supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has criticised the sanctions, saying they have hurt Europe more than Russia, not least in sending energy prices soaring.

The League leader has called for more help for households and businesses to mitigate the impact of rising electricity and gas bills, even if it means adding to Italy’s already mammoth debt.

Meloni disagrees and has offered reassurances that she will pursue a responsible fiscal policy.

READ ALSO: How would victory for Italy’s far right impact foreigners’ lives?

How they will manage these differences along with those they have with Berlusconi – a more pro-European, centre-right force, who is polling at around eight percent – will likely depend on the final balance of power.

“Salvini and Silvio Berlusconi will be difficult coalition partners, desperate to regain visibility after a (likely) beating down on ballot day by stressing policy differences,” predicted Wolfango Piccoli of the Teneo consultancy.

However, De Sio noted that while Salvini had something to gain by bringing down the government in 2019, this was not the case now. He also added that the Italian right has previously proved itself capable of overcoming differences to stay in power.

“A pragmatic approach prevails, in which everyone prefers to keep their government position, with all the advantages that come with it.”

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Second Italian minister takes anti-mafia reporter Saviano to court

Just weeks after going on trial in a case brought by Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, Italian investigative journalist Roberto Saviano was back in court on Wednesday facing allegations of defamation lodged by Meloni's deputy, Matteo Salvini.

Second Italian minister takes anti-mafia reporter Saviano to court

Deputy Prime Minister Salvini, whose far-right League party is a key member of Meloni’s coalition, is suing the journalist for calling him the “minister of the criminal underworld” in a social media post in 2018.

In November, Saviano went on trial in a case brought by Meloni for calling her a “bastard” in 2020 over her attitude towards vulnerable migrants.

READ ALSO: Press freedom fears as Italian PM Meloni takes Saviano to trial

Meloni’s far-right Brothers of Italy party was in opposition at the time, but won September elections on a promise to curb mass migration.

Saviano, known for his international mafia bestseller “Gomorrah”, regularly clashes with Italy’s far-right and says the trials are an attempt to intimidate him.

He faces up to three years in prison if convicted in either trial.

“I think it is the only case in Western democracies where the executive asks the judiciary to lay down the boundaries within which it is possible to criticise it,” Saviano said in a declaration in court on Wednesday.

He said he was “blatantly the victim of intimidation by lawsuit”, on trial “for making my opinion, my thoughts, public”.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about press freedom in Italy

Press freedom watchdogs and supporters of Saviano have called for the suits to be scrapped. Meloni refused in November, despite criticism that her position of power makes it an unfair trial.

Armed guard

Saviano has lived under police protection since revealing the secrets of the Naples mafia in 2006.

But when Salvini was appointed interior minister in a previous government in June 2018, he suggested he might scrap Saviano’s armed guard.

The writer reacted on Facebook, saying Salvini “can be defined ‘the minister of the criminal underworld’,” an expression he said was coined by anti-fascist politician Gaetano Salvemini to describe a political system which exploited voters in Italy’s poorer South.

READ ALSO: Anti-mafia author Saviano won’t be ‘intimidated’ by Salvini

He accused Salvini of having profited from votes in Calabria to get elected senator, while failing to denounce the region’s powerful ‘Ndrangheta mafia and focusing instead on seasonal migrants.

Salvini’s team are expected to reject any claim he is soft on the mafia.

Saviano’s lawyer said he will call as a witness the current interior minister Matteo Piantedosi, who at the time was in charge of evaluating the journalist’s police protection.

The next hearing was set for June 1st.

Watchdogs have warned of the widespread use in Italy of SLAPPS, lawsuits aimed at silencing journalists or whistleblowers.

Defamation through the media can be punished in Italy with prison sentences from six months to three years, but the country’s highest court has urged lawmakers to rewrite the law, saying jail time for such cases was unconstitutional.

Saviano is also being sued by Culture Minister Gennaro Sangiuliano in a civil defamation case brought in 2020, before Sangiuliano joined the cabinet.

A ruling in that case could come in the autumn. If he loses that case Saviano may have to pay up to 50,000 euros in compensation, his lawyer told AFP.

Italy ranked 58th in the 2022 world press freedom index published by Reporters Without Borders, one of the lowest positions in western Europe.