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ROME – On a hot summer evening, a few days after the collapse of Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s government, Italian right-wing political leaders gathered in a private room in Rome’s Palazzo Montecitorio, the lower house of parliament.

This group includes some of the most colorful, outspoken and unpredictable political individualists in Europe: Silvio Berlusconi, 85-year-old billionaire Lothario and former prime minister; Matteo Salvini, 49, former Interior Minister and leader of the Anti-Immigration League party; and Giorgia Meloni, the proud and aggressive 45-year-old in charge of the far-right brothers in Italy.

Gathered around a long conference table, they set about plotting a joint electoral strategy as a right-wing bloc. It was a goal that would require them to set aside their personal plans and political differences in order to unite the right in their common pursuit of power.

The stakes were highest for Meloni in four hours of negotiation that night. If the talks go as planned, she will be the first in line for the next Italian prime minister. But as the inexperienced frontline leader at the table – and the only woman – there was no guarantee that the two great male beasts would agree to her terms.

Meloni triumphed in Sunday’s elections and is set to become Italy’s first female prime minister. But while the right wing stuck together during the campaign, Meloni’s dramatic victory came at the expense of Salvini’s party. How did she surrender her will to two main partners during these fateful conversations – and how long will the honeymoon last?

Great lunch

The conspiracy among the right-wing parties had started even before the elections were announced. Eight days earlier, at Berlusconi’s luxurious villa, Salvini and others were having lunchtime talks about whether they should remain in Draghi’s government or withdraw support from his coalition, triggering elections. Meloni called, and at the end Draghi’s fate was sealed. He resigned as prime minister, and early elections were scheduled on September 25.

Italy is routinely ruled by coalitions of rivals, and no party receives enough votes to win a majority within its electoral system. In view of the ongoing full election campaign, party leaders had to make two urgent decisions: what would be their strategy to fight the different seats to maximize their bloc’s chances of gaining power, and who would be their prime minister’s candidate 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 at the Palazzo Montecitorio on 27th July. In the Salvatori Hall, the conference and reception hall, they sat at a long table under the imposing canvas depicting the Battle of Lepanto, the naval clash in which the Pope’s Holy Alliance defeated the Ottoman Empire. It is a symbolic image for the politicians of the right, who consider her the mother of all victories over Islam.

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

But Meloni was fed up with Berlusconi taking the authority as host, and this time he insisted on a more professional venue. It was a small victory, but it was important and showed her growing influence.

Meloni had been rising in popularity in the polls for months, at the expense of two more experienced men in the room. Now she wanted Salvini and Berlusconi to expressly acknowledge their understanding that the party with the most votes in the election would be able to nominate a candidate for prime minister. Polls suggested it was her.

The deal was not automatic. All three leaders had the same goals for the right-wing electoral victory and knew they needed each other. But the official account that the meeting allegedly took place in “an atmosphere of complete harmony and cooperation” was, according to the adviser, unreliable.

Meloni and her team were careful. They feared that Salvini and Berlusconi might refuse her candidacy, potentially joining forces to argue that she would be too right-wing and could upset the European Union. Before the meeting began, she gave them an ultimatum: if they blocked her leadership, the whole deal would be over and she herself would run away.

“If we can’t agree [the premiership] common rule would not make sense ” He said the day before the meeting.

There is the possibility of right-wing MPs voting in the air to elect a candidate for prime minister, rather than simply putting forward the head of the party with the most support.

But its allies have come to the pragmatic conclusion that there is no justification for changing the rules to block it. Even together, they may not have the votes to outnumber Meloni. Besides, if they did better than expected, discussions could always be reopened, they argued.

The division of the seats was more difficult. In the face of growing tensions, the talks were interrupted twice in the evening so that the parties could hold private consultations. Meloni wanted her nominees to run halfway through the seats, reflecting the latest polls, while her allies wanted to use older, more favorable polls.

The contract was finally concluded within four hours. The three main right-wing parties have agreed to field joint candidates in 221 “first for post” constituencies, making them virtually invincible against a divided left. They also decided to unite for which leader has the most votes. Officials were sent to develop a joint manifesto.

When he finally left late that night, Giancarlo Giorgetti, number two in the League, described the deal as a “miracle”.

‘Miracle’

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

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

Recognition of Meloni as a leader helped her rise in the polls during the campaign and at the same time held back the growth of her allies, said Pierluigi Testa of the Trinita dei Monti think tank in Rome. “It strengthened her leadership.”

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

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

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

But their alliance collapsed as a result of mutual accusations as Draghi’s government collapsed. A separate alliance with the center failed when Letta struck a deal with far-left parties.

“The right has always fallen apart and then reunited for over 20 years,” Testa said. “Even if they disagree about the choices, they see it as a business and work together. They are pragmatic. “

The founder of the Italian Brothers, Ignazio La Russa, argued that an agreement was “inevitable”. Said POLITICO: “If you rule together in 20 regions, there is no reason not to be united. It’s normal, it’s natural.

While the right has found harmony ahead of the election, after the vote, peace between the leaders is unlikely to last long. The parties in the coalition have different positions on many issues – including the cost of maintaining the crisis, sanctions against Russia in connection with the war in Ukraine, and immigration.

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

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

“There will be a honeymoon because the electorate is completely in favor of the new government, so it is dangerous to hit it immediately,” Albertazzi said. “But after about six months [Salvini] will start to criticize from the inside – on issues such as too low a tax cut or sanctions. This is the League’s method of governing: one foot in, the other out, in opposition.

Despite the summit agreement, Meloni’s partners may still make their support conditional on obtaining the government positions they want in the negotiations in the coming weeks. After the votes were counted, Berlusconi’s deputy Antonio Tajani, who had been tipped as a potential foreign minister, questioned this decision again, saying: “We have no prejudices against [Meloni as prime minister]but the decision must be made at the meeting of Meloni, Salvini and Berlusconi. “

A deal is a deal. Until it is not.

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