ROME — Giorgia Meloni will be sworn in as Italy’s first female prime minister on Saturday to lead the country’s most right-wing government since the end of World War II.
On Friday, Meloni received the green light from Italian President Sergio Mattarella to form a government. Her cabinet is expected to be approved in a parliamentary confidence vote early next week.
But most days recently — amid chauvinistic insults and leaked pro-Russian recorded audio — it’s been hard to tell if her far-right coalition is coming together or unraveling.
When the coalition ran away with an election victory a month ago, its recipe for popularity — brandishing culture war issues while pledging stability in Europe — looked set to inspire other far-right movements. Now, the bigger question is whether its members can get beyond infighting, which has deepened a sense of anxiety and unpredictability about Italy’s political direction.
Much of the turmoil has been sparked by four-time prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, the 86-year-old billionaire tycoon who now heads Forza Italia, a junior party in the ruling group.
First, last week, cameramen caught sight of a note written by Berlusconi offering a critique of Meloni’s personality. “Overbearing, arrogant,” he’d written.
Then a series of audio leaks showed Berlusconi boasting about a recent birthday gift from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who’d sent him 20 bottles of vodka and a “very kind letter,” which Berlusconi said he had responded to with an “equally sweet letter” and a pack of Lambrusco wine. The leaks also showed Berlusconi offering a Kremlin-friendly narrative of the war in Ukraine, saying that Putin had reluctantly launched the “special operation” in response to popular will, with the hope of installing “more sensible leaders” in Kyiv.
Meloni responded with an ultimatum: Anybody who doesn’t agree with Italy’s Atlantic and European principles “will not be able to be part of the government, at the cost of not forming a government.”
Despite the turbulence, Meloni’s rise is remarkable, given her party’s connection to the post-fascist movement, and the way in which she has pushed Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) from the fringes to the mainstream.
She has said the prime minister job would be difficult, given inflation, persistent economic stagnation, high government debt and the inherent fragility of politics in Italy, where governments often struggle to last beyond a year.
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Berlusconi’s comments about Russia amount to an additional challenge, because they counter Meloni’s vision of a government that forcefully backs Ukraine and NATO.
Berlusconi had pitched himself as an elder statesman in the coalition. His own party, though diminished in popularity, was generally seen as more centrist than its partners, which include Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia and the League party, led by Matteo Salvini, who Meloni has nominated as one of her deputy prime ministers.
But Berlusconi — a self-described “natural-born seducer,” who shaped the modern era of personality-driven politics with his mix of ego, scandal and television dominance — is having trouble ceding ground.
Meloni once served under him as a youth minister; now she leads a party with three times more support than his own. Some critics, noting Berlusconi’s infamous Bunga Bunga parties, his demeaning portrayal of women on TV, and his habit of commenting on female beauty, say he doesn’t know how to handle a personality like Meloni, who can be cutting, and who outmaneuvers him with the comparatively new tools of social media.
After Berlusconi’s list of adjectives for Meloni became public, she said he’d left one off the list.
“An adjective is missing: I am not blackmail-able,” she said, an apparent reference to an earlier maneuver, when Berlusconi’s party didn’t support a Fratelli d’Italia candidate for head of the Senate. The candidate, Ignazio La Russa, known as a collector of fascist memorabilia, won anyway.
The leaked audio, reported by LaPresse, provided a reminder of the Russian sympathies that have always lurked in Meloni’s coalition. Although Meloni has shown no affinity for Putin, Salvini has questioned the efficacy of Russian sanctions and once wore a Putin T-shirt while touring Red Square.
Berlusconi, meanwhile, has long had a Trumpian soft spot for strongmen. He’s hosted Putin at his Sardinian villa, and in 2015 he became one of the rare Western politicians to visit recently annexed Crimea, where he called Putin the world’s “number one” leader.
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Enrico Letta, the leader of Italy’s center-left Democratic Party, said on Twitter that Italy is “undergoing a dangerous shift,” becoming more ambiguous in its stance on Russia and Ukraine. One of the biggest parties that figure to be in opposition, the Five Star Movement, has pushed for months to end arms shipments to Ukraine.
Though Berlusconi’s apparent unreliability won’t make it easier for Meloni’s coalition to govern, the dynamic is so far playing to her personal advantage. Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, said Thursday that while Berlusconi is “under the influence of vodka,” Meloni was demonstrating “true principles.”
Meloni had said that “with us in government, Italy will never be the weak link of the West.”
Ferruccio de Bortoli, the former editor in chief of the Corriere della Sera newspaper, said the government “has so many inbuilt ambiguities and weaknesses because two out of three partners are pro-Putin.”
But, he said, Meloni has come away looking “even more pro-West, even more pro-NATO, than she looked before.”
“I think Berlusconi’s variety show politics ended up representing a small but meaningful advantage for Giorgia Meloni’s leadership,” he said.
Berlusconi’s stance has forced prominent Forza Italia member Antonio Tajani, who is expected to serve as Meloni’s foreign minister and another of her deputy prime ministers, to say that both the party and Berlusconi back NATO and stand against Russia’s invasion. Berlusconi said on Facebook that his “personal position” included “full and total adhesion to the values of Europe and the Atlantic alliance.”
Friday morning, Meloni spoke to the press, flanked by Salvini and Berlusconi after they had consulted with Mattarella on the formation of a new government. Meloni said they had agreed on the need to make things official “in the shortest possible amount of time.”
She said the support behind her was “unanimous.”
Berlusconi, at that moment, looked toward Salvini and raised his eyebrows.