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30th Jul 2021

Feature

'Wife, or mistress?' The Salvini-Berlusconi hook-up

  • Silvio Berlusconi (r) and Matteo Salvini (c), with Giorgia Meloni (l) looking on. (Photo: quirinale.it)

Italian politics often produces strange bedfellows. It is the case with Silvio Berlusconi and Matteo Salvini: the former is an elderly billionaire former prime minister who calls himself a moderate pro-EU and pro-America liberal.

The latter is the leader of a far-right party that until a few months ago fiercely criticised the European Union. They were allies at the 2018 elections, then Salvini formed a government with the populist Five Star Movement (M5S) -which spoiled the relationship between him and the former prime minister.

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  • According to Italian media, the Berlusconi family - one of Italy's leading entrepreneurial dynasties - would rather focus on business and stop wasting time on politics (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

But a couple of weeks ago, Salvini started calling for a federation between his League and Berlusconi's Forward Italy [Forza Italia] which continues to lose deputies and senators in the Italian parliament.

For his part, Berlusconi has even proposed a merger between the League and Forward Italy. This is typical of Italian politics: when your party is weak, you try to lean on a strong one (like Salvini's League, which the latest voting intention figures see close to 21 percent, while Forward Italy is below seven percent).

Forward Italy's problem is that Berlusconi is now 84-years old and has the aches and pains of age; many of its MPs no longer seem to have much faith in the party's future.

Also, according to the Italian media, the Berlusconi family, one of Italy's leading entrepreneurial dynasties, would rather focus on business and stop wasting time on politics.

Many Forward Italy Italia MPs did not like Salvini's proposal. Just as many in the League did not appreciate Berlusconi's idea of a single party. "Is Salvini looking for a wife or a mistress?" asks one Forward Italy MP (who does not her name disclosed because she is not allowed to talk about the matter to the media).

"If he wants a wife, then he should build a common house with us, the Italian People's party. It would be the equivalent of Germany's CDU and Spain's PP. In all modern European right-wing forces, the liberal and moderate element coexists with the more nationalist one. A simple federation with the League is pointless".

In any case, Salvini and Berlusconi need each other.

The former is fully aware that he cannot become Italy's next prime minister without the moderate voters, and that he should not alienate Italy's most important media empire.

Berlusconi knows that he needs an heir, and that Forward Italy is on the verge of collapse. "I think Forward Italy has completed its cycle. For better or worse it belongs to recent history but I hardly see it in the future of Italian politics," says Marco Follini, former centrist deputy prime minister.

According to Follini, "Salvini is looking for a positioning that will make it less incoherent for him to find himself in a broad coalition government led by Draghi, which goes as far as the Partito Democratico and the M5S [left]".

Two men, one hard-right woman

And again, Salvini fears competition from Giorgia Meloni, the 'Iron Lady' of the Italian ultra-conservative right, who is also close to 21 percent in polls. "Meloni is stealing some of Salvini's old buzzwords, so it is normal that he chooses a more centrist line than the one he has accustomed us to in the past".

Still, Follini struggles to consider Salvini a centrist. "He is not, and I don't think he wants to be. But he has adjusted some of the more extreme and exaggerated positions of previous years."

For a year now, the Italian media have been reporting that Berlusconi is allegedly helping Giancarlo Giorgetti, Salvini's right-hand man, to steer the League towards the European People's Party.

In the opinion of Marcello Pera, former president of the Italian senate and influential philosopher, "Salvini's League has absorbed a lot of Forward Italy's votes. So I think it is appropriate and necessary for the League to collect not only votes, but also the political heritage of Forward Italy, especially its pièce de résistance linked to liberalism. That's why I think that, if it's done well, a federation between Forward Italy and League could lead to a centre-right party with strong liberal elements".

Gianfranco Pasquino, one of Italy's most respected political scientists and professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University SAIS Europe in Bologna, is not entirely sure of Salvini's bona fide.

"I think his proposal of a federation with Berlusconi's Forward Italy is a mistake, but it is a mistake that keeps him on the front pages of the newspapers, in the political debate. Since he doesn't have much to say, he has gained a lot of media attention with this idea. In practice he is getting publicity. Right now, his goal is to stay alive".

For Pasquino, however, Berlusconi really believes in the project of a party that unites the League and Forward Italy.

"He wants to show that he is still the real centre-right leader. It's the swansong of a tired man, who is visibly old but thinks somehow he can still have a grip on Italian politics."

And while Berlusconi and Salvini discuss unions and federations, between leaps and bounds, pragmatic Meloni continues to rise in the polls and her autobiographical book is turning into a bestseller.

Author bio

Valentina Saini is a freelance journalist specialising in Italian social issues and politics, gender issues and the Middle East and North Africa region.

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