ROME — Despite appearances, there’s nothing fraternal about Brothers of Italy leader Giorgia Meloni’s relationship with her main rival on the hard right.
“Together we’ll soon give Italy the government it deserves, no matter those who try to divide us,” she tweeted to Matteo Salvini, leader of the League party, last weekend. He had earlier wished her a Happy Mother’s Day.
The public display of friendship masked a fierce contest between Meloni and Salvini for supremacy on the right that has intensified since the League joined Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s government of national unity in February, leaving Brothers of Italy practically alone in opposition.
The party is now polling at about 18 percent, less than four points behind the League, rendering Meloni a credible challenger to Salvini’s leadership of the right-wing coalition, which also includes former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s party.
The leader of the best-performing party in the bloc is likely to be prime minister if the alliance wins the next general election, due by June 2023 at the latest. Opinion polls suggest the bloc is on track to do just that and if Meloni’s party comes out on top, she could become Italy’s first female prime minister.
Brothers of Italy, which takes its name from the national anthem, has risen steeply since late 2019 and, boosted by its high-profile opposition role, has reached what were previously unimaginable heights for a fringe, post-fascist party that took just 4 percent of the vote in 2018.
Its gains are mostly at the expense of the League, which has been on the slide since it took 34 percent of the vote in Italy’s election for the European Parliament in 2019.
Meloni now poses “a realistic threat” to Salvini’s leadership of the right-wing alliance, said Daniele Albertazzi, a researcher in European politics at the University of Birmingham. “She is in a very good place.”
The secret to her success? While the League has tarnished its insurgent brand by governing in coalition, first with the populist 5Star Movement in 2018, and now in a government of national unity, Brothers of Italy is seen by many voters as more consistent and ideologically pure.
While the party traces its roots to the Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI) formed by Mussolini’s allies after 1945, those origins are not necessarily an impediment to power. The heirs to fascism are considered less extreme in Italy than abroad and have become part of the mainstream as junior partners in right-wing governments since the 1990s.
Being in sole opposition has numerous advantages. Since February, it has allowed the party to act as a magnet for all those who disagree with the government. The opposition is also given control of key parliamentary committees such as the scrutiny of state-controlled TV and intelligence services.
The opposition is also entitled to one-third of the time devoted to politics on state-controlled media, meaning vastly increased visibility.
The party insists its decision to remain outside of government was no political ploy.
Meloni, who declined to be interviewed for this article, said in written comments to POLITICO that her goal was to be “a patriotic opposition … evaluating the government’s proposals without bias and pushing for intervention on priorities” that include work, taxes, the pandemic and managing migration.
“We are not in opposition for political advantage but out of conviction,” said Federico Mollicone, who serves as a senator for the party. “If one-third of Italians are strongly in favor of Draghi, we provide a voice for the majority of Italians who have concerns.”
Mollicone claimed that the Brothers of Italy were in opposition to help their allies in government, by “carrying forward shared battles.”
But the Brothers of Italy’s role in opposition has been anything but helpful to the League, forcing Salvini into the awkward position of trying to keep one foot in the government camp and another in the opposition.
The League has ended up abstaining in Cabinet on measures previously agreed within the governing coalition, and started a petition against the government’s own curfew.
Since the start of the new government, tensions between Meloni and Salvini have remained high. Salvini has refused to relinquish control of the intelligence committee in parliament. Meloni has attempted to split the government, bringing forward votes over lifting the 10 p.m. curfew and a no-confidence motion in Health Secretary Roberto Speranza.
As the summer migrant boat season starts in earnest, Salvini’s ability to reconcile his role in government with his populist instincts will be further tested. When Meloni responded to a surge in migrant boat arrivals last weekend with calls for an immediate naval blockade, Salvini could only demand a meeting with Draghi.
Meanwhile, Meloni appears to be making greater incursions from the far-right fringe toward the center. A new autobiography, Io sono Giorgia, a reference to her landmark speech on identity politics in 2019 that was turned into a viral pop hit, appears to be part of a makeover to soften her image and appeal to a female constituency, by opening up about her difficult childhood without a father and fertility difficulties.
For some analysts, the conflict inside the right-wing alliance is merely political theater that will melt away before elections. Albertazzi, the researcher, noted the parties have a long history of working together. “They have governed together for 25 years,” he said.
An early test of whether they can come together again is looming — they need to pick joint candidates for local elections for major cities in the fall, in particular Rome.
The most convenient thing for her allies would be for Meloni herself to stand. But she has dismissed entreaties to run for mayor of Rome as an attempt to get her out of the way and prevent her from focusing on the race that counts, the national one.
For now, the League is still ahead in the polls but, on the current trajectory, it could be overtaken by Brothers of Italy by the end of the year.
If Meloni’s party leads not only in polls but in votes at the next general election, Salvini will be under pressure to stick to an agreement within the alliance and let her take the top job. “In that case it is hard see how anyone can stop her becoming prime minister,” said Albertazzi.