Italy: internal rivalry could threaten the stability of a Meloni-led coalition

<span>Photograph: Alessandra Tarantino/AP</span>
Photograph: Alessandra Tarantino/AP

Giorgia Meloni has spent three decades fighting her way to the top of Italian politics. But despite her political prowess, the 45-year-old from Rome, whose strong will and determination has drawn comparisons to Margaret Thatcher, has limited government experience.

If Meloni is confirmed as prime minister over the next few weeks, she will be in charge of steering Italy through one of its most delicate periods, dealing with mammoth challenges from the energy crisis and high inflation to a possible recession and a winter wave of Covid-19.

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Her most immediate challenge, however, would be putting together a cabinet that is fit enough to govern and strong enough to last. A person close to Meloni told the Guardian last week that she was ready to be prime minister, rejecting rumours towards the end of the campaign that the daunting task was making her panicky.

But her struggle could be in finding suitable figures from within her Brothers of Italy party, which has neo-fascist origins, to fill ministerial posts. One of her most important decisions will be who takes the helm at the finance ministry. Early on in the election campaign, she mentioned Giulio Tremonti, a finance minister in all of Silvio Berlusconi’s former governments, the last one of which brought Italy to the brink of financial collapse, for the position.

Another threat to her possible government’s stability could come from within her coalition, composed of Matteo Salvini’s far-right League and Berlusconi’s Forza Italia. The alliance has endeavoured to put on a united front, but Salvini, whose popularity has vastly dwindled amid Meloni’s rise, finds the prospect of her becoming prime minister, a role he has long coveted, unbearable. In October last year, after Brothers of Italy managed to draw votes away from the League in its northern strongholds in local elections, a secret recording revealed Salvini hitting out at Meloni, calling her a “pain in the ass”.

The rivalry between the pair has been simmering since then, and while they share several common policies, they recently clashed over one of the most crucial themes of the moment – sanctions against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine. Meloni has pledged that her government would continue to support the sanctions, while Salvini has criticised them for “bringing Italy to its knees”.

Nadia Urbinati, a political theorist at New York’s Columbia University and the University of Bologna, said that if Brothers of Italy win the biggest share of the vote, then Meloni will “naturally” be the coalition leader. “Salvini is in decline, and for a megalomaniac like him, this [would] be unbearable, so it’s probable that there will be psychological tension.”

Berlusconi, meanwhile, is also rumoured to not be so supportive of Meloni, who was youth minister in his third government, becoming prime minister.

Part of Meloni’s charm for voters has been her ability to stand her ground against the two men, but maintaining unity will be a near impossible job in the months ahead, given the personal rivalries, according to Wolfango Piccoli, a co-president of the London-based research company Teneo.

“A poor performance by the League and Forza Italia [in the elections] will potentially complicate Meloni’s life, so keeping a leash on them will be important, as otherwise they will start making noise and especially on themes that are hard for Meloni to handle, such pensions and Russian sanctions,” he said.

Meloni would also need to maintain popularity and trust among her voters as she navigates the challenges over the coming months.

“What we’ve seen of the Italian electorate in the last 10 years is very volatile,” Piccoli said. “And also what we’re seeing is political parties becoming very popular very quickly, but equally quickly going down in the polls.

“So that is a challenge for Meloni, especially if we have a tough winter, and if things remain complicated with Ukraine or get more complicated.”