Inside the secret deal to put Giorgia Meloni in power – POLITICO

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

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

Gathered around a long conference table, they set about developing a common electoral strategy as a right-wing bloc. It was a goal that would require them to put aside their personal agendas and political differences in an effort to unite the right in a common bid for power.

The stakes were highest for Meloni during the four hours of negotiations that night. If talks go her way, she would become 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 that the two big male beasts in the room would agree to her terms.

In Sunday’s election, Meloni triumphed and is now set to become Italy’s first female prime minister. But while the right held 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 discussions – and how long will the honeymoon last?

The big lunch

The conspiracy between right-wing parties began even before the election was called. Eight days earlier, at Berlusconi’s luxurious villa, Salvini and others had discussions over lunch over whether to stay in Draghi’s government or withdraw support for his coalition, triggering an election. Meloni phoned and in the end Draghi’s fate was sealed. He resigned as prime minister and snap elections were set for September 25.

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

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

The right-wing heavyweight trio met on July 27 at the Palazzo Montecitorio. In the Sala Salvatori, a conference and reception hall, they were seated at a long table under an imposing canvas of the Battle of Lepanto, the naval conflict in which the Pope’s Holy Alliance defeated the Ottoman Empire. It is a symbolic image for right-wing politicians, who consider it the mother of all victories over Islam.

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

But Meloni was 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 his growing influence.

For months, Meloni had been gaining popularity in the polls, to the detriment of the two most experienced men in the room. Now she wanted Salvini and Berlusconi to explicitly confirm that it was understood that the party that won the most votes in the election could nominate the candidate for prime minister. Polls suggested it would be her.

An agreement was not automatic. The three leaders shared the same goals of electoral victory for the right and they knew they needed each other. But the official account that the meeting took place in « an atmosphere of total harmony and collaboration » was barely credible, according to an aide.

Meloni and his team were suspicious. Salvini and Berlusconi, they feared, might refuse to make her the candidate, potentially joining forces to argue that she would be too far-right and could disrupt the EU. Before the meeting started, she gave them an ultimatum: if they blocked her from the leadership, everything would be canceled and she would show up alone.

« If we can’t agree on [the premiership] it wouldn’t 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 prime minister, instead of just nominating the leader of the most supported party.

But her allies had come to the pragmatic conclusion that it was not possible to justify changing the rules to block her. Even together, they might not have more voice than Meloni. Moreover, if they did better than expected, talks could always be reopened, they reasoned.

The distribution of seats was more difficult. Amid growing tensions, the talks broke down twice in the evening so that the parties could hold private consultations. Meloni wanted his nominees to run as candidates in half the seats, reflecting the latest polls, while his allies wanted to use older, more favorable polls.

Within four hours, an agreement was finally reached. The three main right-wing parties have agreed to field common candidates in the 221 first-past-the-post constituencies, making them virtually unbeatable against a divided left. They also decided to unite behind the leader who would get the most votes. Civil servants were sent to draw up a common manifesto.

When he finally left late in the evening, League number two Giancarlo Giorgetti called the deal a « miracle ».

‘A miracle’

In many ways, the summit marked Meloni’s first premiership victory and effectively crowned her as a leader of the right. It was a stunning achievement for the leader of a party that won just 4% of the vote in the 2018 election. The deal was « a stepping stone for Meloni’s leadership », wrote political commentator Marcello Sorgi , in an editorial in La Stampa.

Enrico Letta, leader of the Democrats, said the meeting was historic for the wrong reasons: « Berlusconi and Salvini basically decided to become partisans and put themselves in Meloni’s hands for good. »

Meloni’s recognition as a leader helped her rise in the polls during the campaign, while halting the growth of her allies, said Pierluigi Testa of the Trinita dei Monti think tank in Rome. « It cemented his leadership. »

The agreement was also essential to their victory on the left.

Letta’s goal as Democratic leader was to create a far-reaching leftist alliance, and he had spent a year and a half working to unite his Socialist Democrats and the 5-Star Populist Movement.

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

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

« The right has always separated and then reunited for more than 20 years, » Testa said. « Even if they fall out in the election, they see it as business and they run together. They are pragmatic.

Brothers of Italy founder 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 not to be united. It’s normal, natural. »

While the right has found harmony in time for the election, with voting over, peace between the leaders is unlikely to last long. The parties within the coalition have divergent positions on many issues, including the cost of living crisis, sanctions against Russia over the war in Ukraine and immigration.

Daniele Albertazzi, a politics professor at the University of Surrey, said it was only a matter of time before Salvini, in particular, started to get restless.

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League 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 is dangerous to hit it immediately,” Albertazzi said. « But after about six months, [Salvini] will start to criticize from within – on issues such as not cutting taxes fast enough or penalties. This is the mode of government of the League: one foot inside and one foot outside, in opposition.

Despite the agreement reached at the summit, Meloni’s partners could still support her provided they secure the ministerial positions they want in the negotiations over the coming weeks. As the votes were counted, Berlusconi’s deputy, Antonio Tajani, tipped as a potential foreign minister, once again seemed to question the decision, saying: « We have no prejudice against [Meloni as prime minister]but the decision must be taken during a meeting between Meloni, Salvini and Berlusconi.

A deal is a deal. Until it doesn’t.

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