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Berlusconi creates turbulence for Meloni and Italy’s far-right coalition


ROME — As of Friday, Giorgia Meloni is expected to receive the green light from Italian President Sergio Mattarella to form Italy’s most right-wing government since the end of World War II.

She is likely to succeed, get her cabinet approved in parliamentary confidence and become Italy’s first female prime minister. But for the most part lately — amid chauvinistic insults and leaked pro-Russian audio tapes — it’s been hard to tell whether his far-right coalition is coming together or falling apart.

When the coalition swept away with an election victory a month ago, its recipe for popularity – brandishing culture war issues while promising stability in Europe – looked poised to inspire other far-right movements. Now the bigger question is whether its members can move beyond infighting, which has deepened a sense of anxiety and unpredictability over Italy’s political direction.

Much of the unrest has been sparked by four-time prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, the 86-year-old billionaire tycoon who now leads Forza Italia, a junior party in the alleged ruling group.

First, last week cameramen spotted a memo written by Berlusconi offering a critique of Meloni’s personality. “Authoritarian, arrogant,” he wrote.

Then a series of audio leaks showed Berlusconi bragging about a recent birthday present from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who sent him 20 bottles of vodka and a “very kind letter”, to which Berlusconi said he replied with an “equally sweet letter” and a pack of Lambrusco wine bound for Moscow. The leaks also showed that Berlusconi was offering a favorable Kremlin account of the war in Ukraine, saying Putin reluctantly launched the “special operation” in response to popular will, hoping to install “more sensible leaders” in Kyiv.

Meloni responded with an ultimatum: anyone who disagreed with Italy’s Atlantic and European principles “cannot 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 she pushed Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) from the margins into the mainstream.

She said the job of prime minister would be difficult, given inflation, continued economic stagnation, high public debt and the inherent fragility of politics in Italy, where governments often struggle to endure. more than a year.

A far-right politician is set to become Italy’s first female leader

Berlusconi’s comments on Russia pose an additional challenge, as they run counter to Meloni’s vision of a government that strongly backs Ukraine and NATO.

Berlusconi presented himself as a former coalition statesman. His own party, although less popular, was generally seen as more centrist than its partners, which included Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia and the League party, led by Matteo Salvini.

But Berlusconi – a self-proclaimed “natural born seducer”, who shaped the modern era of personality-driven politics with his mix of ego, scandal and television dominance – is struggling to give ground.

Meloni once served under him as minister of youth; now she leads a party with three times the support of hers. Some critics, noting Berlusconi’s infamous Bunga Bunga parties, his demeaning portrayal of women on television 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 outsmarts it with the relatively new tools of social media.

After Berlusconi’s list of adjectives for Meloni became public, she said he left one on the list.

‘An adjective is missing: I’m not capable of blackmailing,’ she said, an apparent reference to an earlier maneuver, when Berlusconi’s party failed to back a Fratelli d’Italia candidate for the lead of the Senate. The candidate, Ignazio La Russa, known as a collector of fascist memorabilia, still won.

The leaked audio, reported by LaPresse, served as a reminder of the Russian sympathies that have always lurked in Meloni’s coalition. Although Meloni showed no affinity with Putin, Salvini questioned the effectiveness 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 hosted Putin at his Sardinian villa, and in 2015 became one of the few Western politicians to visit recently annexed Crimea, where he called Putin the “number one” world leader.

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Enrico Letta, the leader of Italy’s centre-left Democratic Party, said on Twitter that Italy was “undergoing a dangerous change”, becoming more ambiguous in its stance on Russia and Ukraine. One of the largest opposition parties, the Five Star Movement, has been pushing for months to end arms deliveries to Ukraine.

Although Berlusconi’s apparent unreliability does not make Meloni’s coalition government any easier, the dynamics are working to his personal advantage so far. Mykhailo Podolyak, adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, said Thursday that while Berlusconi is “under the influence of vodka”, Meloni demonstrated “true principles”.

Meloni had declared that “with us in government, Italy will never be the weak link in the West”.

Ferruccio de Bortoli, the former editor of the Corriere della Sera newspaper, said the government “has so many inherent ambiguities and weaknesses because two out of three partners are pro-Putin.”

But, he said, Meloni came away looking “even more pro-West, even more pro-NATO than she seemed before.”

“I think Berlusconi’s variety show policy ended up being a small but significant advantage for Giorgia Meloni’s leadership,” he said.

Berlusconi’s stance forced another prominent party member, Antonio Tajani, a suspected frontrunner to become foreign minister, to say that the party and Berlusconi support NATO and oppose the Russian invasion. Berlusconi said on Facebook that his “personal position” included “full and complete adherence to the values ​​of Europe and the Atlantic Alliance”.

On Friday morning, Meloni addressed the press, flanked by Salvini and Berlusconi after consulting Mattarella on forming a new government. Meloni said they had agreed on the need to formalize things “as soon as possible”, which would require a vote of confidence in parliament in the coming days.

She said the support behind her was “unanimous”.

Berlusconi, at this moment, looked at Salvini and raised his eyebrows.


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