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ITALIAN ELECTIONS

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. 

‘Arrogance’

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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ITALIAN ELECTIONS

What role will Berlusconi play in Italy’s new government?

Nine years after being convicted of tax fraud, 'immortal' Silvio Berlusconi is set to return to the Senate and seeks a ‘director’ role in the new Italian government.

What role will Berlusconi play in Italy's new government?

Silvio Berlusconi has done it again – the 85-year-old former prime minister returns to parliament after winning a seat in Italy’s Senate. He does so nine years after being forced out of Palazzo Madama for tax fraud.

Berlusconi’s Forza Italia was celebrating on Monday after a right-wing coalition led by Giorgia Meloni and her post-fascist Brothers of Italy party triumphed at the ballot boxes.

READ ALSO: Italian elections LIVE: Far right set for clear win as Italy awaits official results

The media mogul, who has been recently dubbed “the immortal” for his longevity in politics, scored a seat in Monza, Lombardy, where he owns a Serie A football club.

Leader of Italy's liberal-conservative party Forza Italia, Silvio Berlusconi and leader of Italy's conservative party Brothers of Italy, Giorgia Meloni acknowledge supporters at the end of a joint rally.

Berlusconi will be one of the key members of the new Italian government together with Matteo Salvini and Giorgia Meloni, currently poised to be the new PM. Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP

The billionaire was forced out of the upper house of parliament in 2013 after being convicted of corporate tax fraud.

It was a heavy blow for the cavaliere’s political career, one which, in Berlusconi’s words, marked a “day of mourning for democracy”.

The three-time former premier was ordered to serve community service and was banned from holding elected office. That ban expired in 2018 but it would take Berlusconi a while to recover his shine. 

READ ALSO: Meloni, Salvini, Berlusconi: The key figures in Italy’s likely new government

His bid to become Italy’s head of state failed in January. But, at his ninth general election – likely his last – Berlusconi bounced back.

He campaigned largely on social media, snapping up over 600,000 followers on TikTok in just a month, and wooing the youth vote with (slightly awkward) grandad jokes.

In one video, which was watched over one million times, he interrupted himself to brag about killing an enormous fly. In another, he joked about stealing young men’s girlfriends.

Pro-European voice 

Berlusconi, who burst onto the political scene 28 years ago, said he would be a father figure to Meloni, 45, and fellow coalition partner Matteo Salvini, 49.

He also said he would be a pro-European voice in what is expected to be Italy’s most right-wing government since World War II.

“I’m going to try to act as director in the government,” Berlusconi said after casting his vote. 

Silvio Berlusconi (C) surrounded by bodyguards, arrives at his home in downtown Rome on March 11, 2015.

Berlusconi is currently part of a criminal trial, in which he is accused of paying starlets to keep quiet about his erotic dinner parties. Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP

This is despite a series of health issues, including a fall at the start of the campaign which made it difficult for him to walk.

Berlusconi is also currently part of a criminal trial, in which he is accused of paying starlets to keep quiet about his allegedly erotic dinner parties, known as ‘bunga bunga’.

READ ALSO: Italian prosecutors seek six-year jail term for Berlusconi in ‘Ruby ter’ trial

The conservative European People’s Party (EPP), the biggest group in the European Parliament, tweeted their congratulations to Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, which secured about eight percent of Sunday’s vote.

“We are confident that Forza Italia will guide the next government into a path that serves the best interests of the Italian people as part of a strong and stable Europe,” it said.

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