Squabbles spell trouble for Italy's right-wing coalition even before government is formed

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By Aleksandar Brezar  with AP
Lega's Matteo Salvini, Forza Italia's Silvio Berlusconi, and Brothers of Italy's Giorgia Meloni attend the final rally of the centre-right coalition in Rome, 22 September 2022
Lega's Matteo Salvini, Forza Italia's Silvio Berlusconi, and Brothers of Italy's Giorgia Meloni attend the final rally of the centre-right coalition in Rome, 22 September 2022   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino

Mere weeks after Italy's right-wing coalition announced its victory in the general election, the first fault lines are appearing, meaning the three-way alliance could be over even before the government is formalised.

The resounding victory by far-right leader Giorgia Meloni in the 25 September vote is not sitting well with 86-year-old Silvio Berlusconi — the former three-time conservative prime minister who, four decades her senior, fancies himself the elder statesman of Italy's political right.

Meloni is expected to be asked next week by Italy's President Sergio Mattarella to try to create a governing coalition with campaign allies Berlusconi and right-wing leader Matteo Salvini and become premier. 

Behind-the-scenes divvying up of ministries in what would be Italy's first far-right-led government since the end of World War II started after her Fratelli d'Italia, or Brothers of Italy party took 26% of the ballots cast — more than those won by the forces of Salvini and Berlusconi combined.

The knives carving out those Cabinet posts are proving particularly sharp.

Salvini on Saturday issued a sort of call for a truce between Meloni and Berlusconi so that the three allies' bid to rule Italy isn't derailed.

"I am sure that even between Giorgia and Silvio that harmony, which will be fundamental to government, well and together, for the next five years, will return,'' Salvini said in a statement released by his anti-migrant League party about the escalating post-election tensions.

Adjectives on stationery spell discontent

A spat between Berlusconi and Meloni turned ugly when the former PM and a media mogul scrawled a list of derogatory adjectives about her on stationery emblazoned with the name of his villa near Milan. 

He positioned it in the Senate in plain view for photographers covering the election on Thursday of the upper parliamentary chamber's president.

"Giorgia Meloni," wrote Berlusconi, jotting down that her ways are "presumptuous, bossy, arrogant, offensive". 

A fifth adjective, "ridiculous,'' appeared to have been scribbled over, said Italian media, who magnified the image.

Some key political differences existed from the beginning — Berlusconi bills himself a staunch champion of the European Union, while Meloni has said national interests should prevail over any conflicting priorities in the bloc.

The octogenarian mainstay is also close friends with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Meloni, on the other hand, openly pledged her full support to Ukraine and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in early October.

Yet, their spat also seems patriarchal.

"In Berlusconi's etiquette, the woman is courted and maybe even venerated, but a true male cannot take orders from her, let alone accept that she says 'no,''' wrote Massimo Gramellini in the daily Corriere della Serra.

According to domestic accounts, Meloni had vetoed a ministry for a close political aide of Berlusconi, who is one of his several female political proteges.

With his self-described weakness for young women, Berlusconi has launched the political careers of female lawmakers from Forza Italia, the centre-right party he created three decades ago.

He also gave Meloni her first shot at partaking in the government, appointing her as Minister of Youth during his third tenure as prime minister between 2008 and 2011.

Reflecting Berlusconi's aggravation, nearly all of his senators refused to vote for Meloni's pick for Senate president, Ignazio La Russa, a long-time fascist nostalgist who helped Meloni establish Brothers of Italy in 2012 as she forged her far-right political ascent.

The Forza Italia boycott delivered a stiff rebuke to her. Meloni, known for her frankness, did not budge.

"It seems like a point was missing among those listed by Berlusconi — that I can't be blackmailed,'' Meloni told private Italian TV La7.

Meloni pledges to 'unite the nation'

Meloni already stood her ground during the election campaign as well. 

When opinion surveys indicated that she was by far the front-runner over Berlusconi and Salvini, those two unsuccessfully tried to wiggle out of a long-standing pact that the top-getter in campaign coalitions would become premier should their forces prove victorious.

Together, the leaders' three parties command a comfortable majority in the newly seated Parliament.

Still, Meloni needs the forces of Berlusconi and Salvini for any viable coalition.

Salvini chafed for days when it appeared Meloni would not let him become interior minister, a post he held in 2018-2019 and used to crack down on migrants arriving by the tens of thousands on smugglers' boats or rescue ships. 

On Friday, Meloni's forces backed the election to the presidency of the lower Chamber of Deputies of a Lega, or League party lawmaker, Lorenzo Fontana — an ultraconservative who, like Salvini, has openly admired Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Late Friday, the five-pointed star symbol of the World War II antifascist movement was scrawled along with La Russa's name on a Brothers of Italy office in the Rome neighbourhood of Garbatella.

It is the very office where Meloni began her career as a teenager in the youth wing of a neo-fascist predecessor of her own party, MSI.

Meloni on Saturday retweeted her party's description of the act as "a clear reference to the dramatic years that we don't want to live through again" — referring to the so-called Years of Lead marked by political terrorism by the far-right and the far-left alike. 

She wants to "unite the Nation, not divide it as someone is trying to do," Meloni vowed in her tweet.