Seething at his desk during Parliament’s first session last week, Silvio Berlusconi clutched a note about his putative ally, Giorgia Meloni, the Brothers of Italy party leader.
The 86-year-old former prime minister and media tycoon called Meloni “opinionated, domineering, arrogant and offensive ... No willingness to change”, according to a photograph of the note published in La Repubblica and authenticated by the Financial Times. “She is someone you can’t get along with,” the scribble read.
Meloni, however, was unfazed: “One point was missing from Berlusconi’s list: that I cannot be blackmailed,” she said.
The public showdown is an inauspicious warning of the sniping and power struggles Meloni will face as she tries to fulfil her pledge to provide stable governance as the head of Italy’s three-party rightwing coalition.
The coalition’s leadership trio — Meloni, Berlusconi and the League’s Matteo Salvini — have a common rightwing ideology. But their personal rivalry is expected to fuel plenty of ructions — if they manage to get over the current crisis so as to form the government.
“There is a generational, and gender perspective on this,” said Valerio Alfonso Bruno, fellow at the UK-based Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right. “Both Berlusconi and Salvini don’t really accept the idea that the strong one in this coalition is Meloni. It’s not easy for an Italian man to tolerate a woman so determined and so strong. They will do whatever they can to make her life complicated.”
At present, Berlusconi’s frustration with Meloni stems from her apparent refusal to give key ministries to some of his personal favourites, such as his devoted aide Licia Ronzulli, a former nurse.
On a deeper level, though, analysts say, the octogenarian who dominated Italian politics for decades resents his current eclipse by Meloni, who he first tapped as minister in back 2008, and who he believes is failing to show him sufficient respect.
“This is related to very human, delicate things,” said historian Giovanni Orsina, author of a book on Berlusconi. “For years and years, he was the undisputed master of the coalition. What is important for him is that his importance is recognised — even more than any political consideration.”
Yet Meloni, whose Brothers of Italy party won 26 per cent of the vote — up from 4 per cent in 2018 — is eager to establish her own authority over both Salvini, whose League won about 9 per cent of the vote, and Berlusconi, whose Forza Italia secured roughly 8 per cent.
“She has sent a very strong message that the moment she is the prime minister, she is going to be in charge,” said Daniele Albertazzi, a professor at the University of Surrey. “She wants to show the world that, ‘don’t think for a moment that just because I’m a woman ... you can just boss me around’.”
Furious at her attitude, Berlusconi ordered Forza Italia senators last week to refrain from voting for Meloni’s chosen candidate for the senate presidency, Ignazio La Russa. But La Russa received enough opposition support to get elected anyway, a victory for Meloni that further enraged Berlusconi.
Now, with Italy’s president Sergio Mattarella beginning consultations that are expected to lead to a formal invitation to Meloni to form a government, mediation efforts are under way to engineer a reconciliation between the feuding leaders.
“If we speak in terms of political rationality, not forming the government, and destroying the coalition, is in no one’s interest,” Orsina said. “Eventually they will come to an agreement.”
But Bruno predicted that even if a public reconciliation takes place, tensions are unlikely to dissipate, and will flare up again soon.
“There will be weeks that everything looks perfect — back to the honeymoon,” he said. “Then, there will be weeks where everything looks more complicated, with Salvini or Berlusconi yelling, ‘If you don’t do the things we want, it’s going to be the end of the government’.” — Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022