Giorgia Meloni will have to play a delicate balancing act
Observing the initial results of the Italian elections, one fact appears very clear: everyone has lost except Giorgia Meloni. Italy’s soon-to-be first female Prime Minister obtained three times as many votes as Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, and well over double Matteo Salvini’s League.
But, in many respects, the under-performance of Meloni’s Right-wing rivals could actually have a destabilising effect on her coalition. Her relationship with Berlusconi and Salvini has never been as close as the media has made out, and these two wounded allies can cause her problems.
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Although Berlusconi was never a serious contender for office, his party’s 8.1% of the vote is significant. He intends to make his presence in the alliance felt, signalling to Meloni that he sees himself as kingmaker of the coalition. Were Meloni to try to isolate him or his party, Berlusconi could easily return the favour by joining forces with other parties. As the Right’s most pro-EU voice, the media tycoon has maintained ties with elements of the centre-Left, meaning that if Meloni pushed it too far with Ursula von der Leyen, Berlusconi could threaten to form a new government with other political forces (including Pd).
The relationship with Salvini is more complex. Defeated and downtrodden, the party leader will be looking to regain the initiative, which he could do by placing himself as a more ‘sovereignist’ and critical voice within the future government. Adopting this position would also be partly due to political pressures within Salvini’s own party: the governors of the northern regions have always been more vocal than the South, and they may be tempted to voice their Euroscepticism more loudly if things aren’t going well.
This means that Meloni will be left with a delicate balancing act: criticise the EU too much and risk alienating Forza Italia, but say too little and anger the League.
But the truth is that Meloni does not want conflict with the European hierarchies. Indeed, she wants to continue support for Ukraine and remain loyal to the United States. More cynically: she took power, and she intends to keep it. Although her allies will try to make things difficult for her, it is unlikely that she will suddenly turn into the new Viktor Orbán.
Almost all Italian newspapers worry about the alleged illiberal tendencies of the Right, but Italy is not likely to become an illiberal democracy. The real problem is that the Right-wing coalition is not as united as it appears and it remains to be seen how long they will last as a government (assuming they form one in the first place). None of the three parties agree on, for example, how to deal with rising bills and runaway inflation, which is bound to pose a significant challenge. So while the Fratelli D’Italia may enjoy their day in the sun, they may, as we say here, end up turning into Fratelli coltelli, or brothers of knives.