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The Italian job: Inside the backroom deal to put Giorgia Meloni in power

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ROME — On a sultry summer evening, a few days after Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s government fell apart, Italy’s right-wing political leaders gathered in a private room inside Rome’s Palazzo Montecitorio, the lower house of parliament.

The group included some of Europe’s most colorful, outspoken, and unpredictable political mavericks: Silvio Berlusconi, the 85-year-old billionaire lothario and former prime minister; Matteo Salvini, 49, the firebrand ex-interior minister and leader of the anti-immigration League party; and Giorgia Meloni, a proud and pugnacious 45-year-old in charge of the far-right Brothers of Italy.

Gathered around a long conference table, they set about plotting a joint election strategy as a right-wing bloc. It was an objective that would require them to put aside personal agendas and political differences for the sake of uniting the right in a shared bid for power.

The stakes were highest for Meloni in the four hours of negotiations that night. If the talks went her way, she would emerge as first in line to be Italy’s next prime minister. But as the least experienced frontline leader around the table — and the only woman — there was no guarantee the two male big beasts in the room would agree to her terms.

At Sunday’s election, Meloni triumphed and is now set to become Italy’s first female prime minister. But while the right stayed together during the campaign, Meloni’s dramatic victory came at the expense of Salvini’s party. How did she stamp her will on her two main partners during those fateful talks — and how long will the honeymoon last?

The big lunch

The plotting among the right-wing parties began even before an election was called. Eight days earlier at Berlusconi’s luxury villa, Salvini and others held talks over lunch on whether they should stay in Draghi’s government or withdraw support for his coalition, triggering an election. Meloni phoned in and by the end, Draghi’s fate was sealed. He quit as prime minister and a snap election was set for September 25. 

Italy is routinely governed by coalitions of rivals, with no single party receiving enough votes to win a majority outright under its electoral system. With a full election campaign underway, party leaders had two urgent decisions to take: What would their strategy be for fighting different seats to maximize their bloc’s chances of winning power, and who would be their candidate for prime minister if they succeeded? 

Silvio Berlusconi, leader of the right-wing party “Forza Italia” | Tiziana Fabi/AFP via Getty Images

The trio of right-wing heavyweights met on July 27 in Palazzo Montecitorio. In the Sala Salvatori, a conference and reception room, they sat at a long table beneath an imposing canvas of the Battle of Lepanto, the naval clash in which the pope’s Holy Alliance defeated the Ottoman Empire. It is a symbolic image for politicians on the right, who regard it as the mother of all victories over Islam. 

The choice of location held a different symbolism for Meloni. The right-wing alliance usually convened their meetings at one of Berlusconi’s opulent villas in Rome or Milan, reflecting his role as founder of the group. 

But Meloni had tired of Berlusconi assuming authority by playing host, and this time insisted on a more professional venue. It was a small victory, but it was important, and demonstrated her increasing influence. 

For months, Meloni had been growing in popularity in the polls, at the expense of the two more experienced men in the room. Now, she wanted Salvini and Berlusconi explicitly to confirm an understanding that whichever party won the most votes in the election would get to nominate the candidate to be prime minister. Polls suggested that would be her. 

An agreement was not automatic. All three leaders shared the same aims of electoral victory for the right and they knew they needed each other. But the official account that the meeting supposedly took place in “a climate of total harmony and collaboration” was scarcely credible, according to an aide.

Meloni and her team were wary. Salvini and Berlusconi, they feared, could refuse to make her the candidate, potentially joining forces to argue that she would be too far-right and could unsettle the EU. Before the meeting began, she hit them with an ultimatum: if they blocked her from the leadership, the whole deal would be off and she would run alone. 

“If we can’t agree on [the premiership] it would not make sense to govern together,” she said the day before the meeting. 

One possibility in the air would have seen a vote among right-wing MPs to choose the candidate for premier, instead of simply putting forward the head of the party with the most support. 

But her allies had come to the pragmatic conclusion that it wasn’t possible to justify changing the rules to block her. Even together they might not have the votes to outnumber Meloni. Besides, if they did better than expected, discussions could always be re-opened, they reasoned.

Division of the seats was more difficult. Amid rising tensions, the talks stopped twice during the evening so the parties could hold private consultations. Meloni wanted her nominees to run as the candidates in half the seats, reflecting the latest polls, while her allies wanted to use older, more favorable polls.

Over the course of four hours, a deal was eventually hammered out. The three main right-wing parties agreed to field shared candidates in the 221 first-past-the-post constituencies, making them virtually unbeatable against a divided left. They also resolved to unite behind whichever leader got the most votes. Officials were sent away to work up a joint manifesto. 

When he eventually left late in the evening, Giancarlo Giorgetti, number two in the League, described the agreement as “a miracle.”

‘A miracle’

In several ways, the summit marked the first victory of Meloni’s premiership, and crowned her effectively as the leader of the right. That was an astonishing achievement for the leader of a party that won just 4 percent of the vote at the 2018 election. The deal was “a springboard for Meloni’s leadership,” wrote political commentator Marcello Sorgi, in an editorial for La Stampa. 

Enrico Letta, leader of the Democrats, said that the meeting was historic for the wrong reasons: “Berlusconi and Salvini have basically decided to become followers and put themselves definitively in Meloni’s hands.”

The recognition of Meloni as leader helped her rise further in the polls during the campaign, while it stopped the growth of her allies, said Pierluigi Testa of the Trinita dei Monti think tank in Rome. “It consolidated her leadership.” 

The deal was also critical to their victory over the left.

Letta’s aim as Democratic leader was to create a wide-ranging leftist alliance, and he had spent a year-and-a-half working to unite his socialist Democrats and the populist 5Star Movement. 

Former Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta | Eric Piermont/AFP via Getty Images

But their alliance fell apart amid recriminations as the Draghi government collapsed. A separate alliance with the center failed when Letta did a deal with far-left parties.

“The right has always broken up and then reunited for more than 20 years,” said Testa. “Even if they fall out when it comes to elections they see it as business and they run together. They are pragmatic.”

Founder of Brothers of Italy Ignazio La Russa claimed it was “inevitable” that there would be an agreement. He told POLITICO: “If you govern together in 20 regions there is no reason to not be united. It is normal, natural.”

While the right found harmony in time for the elections, with the vote over, the peace between leaders is unlikely to last long. The parties within the coalition hold diverging positions on numerous issues — including the cost of living crisis, sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine war, and immigration.

Daniele Albertazzi, professor of politics at the University of Surrey, said it was only a matter of time before Salvini, in particular, starts agitating. 

Lega leader Matteo Salvini | Andreas Solaro/AFP via Getty Images

“There will be a honeymoon period, because the electorate is fully behind the new government so it’s dangerous to hit them immediately,” Albertazzi said. “But after around six months, [Salvini] will start criticizing from the inside — on issues such as not cutting taxes fast enough or sanctions. This is the League’s method of government: one foot inside and one foot outside, in opposition.”

Despite the deal struck at the summit, Meloni’s partners could still make support for her conditional on getting the cabinet posts they want in negotiations over the weeks ahead. As the votes were counted, Berlusconi’s deputy Antonio Tajani, tipped as a potential foreign minister, seemed to put the decision once more in doubt, saying: “We have no bias against [Meloni as prime minister], but the decision has to be taken at a meeting between Meloni, Salvini and Berlusconi.”

A deal is a deal. Until it’s not. 

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