When she arrives at Milan’s spectacular gothic Duomo cathedral for Silvio Berlusconi’s state funeral on Wednesday, Giorgia Meloni will be among the most prominent of the mourners.
The very fact that Meloni is prime minister — Italy’s first woman to hold the post — owes a lot to Berlusconi’s own influence. He gave Meloni her first big break in frontline politics, making her the youngest government minister in Italian history at age 31 in 2008.
Then last year, he was instrumental in triggering the downfall of Mario Draghi’s premiership, convening a meeting of right-wingers over lunch at his luxurious villa, at which they all agreed to vote against the government.
And again after Draghi’s demise, it was Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party, now a moderate centre-right movement, that allied with Meloni’s far-right group in a coalition deal that put her in power.
But aside from being Meloni’s useful partner in the business of gaining power, Berlusconi provided the template for a brand of politics that she has now made her own. And like the political siblings they were, these two members of right-wing royalty fought bitterly, and often.
For one thing, their personal leadership styles were cut from the same humble cloth. And they could both be irreverent to the point of crudeness.
On election day last September, Meloni posted a tongue-in-cheek video of herself holding two melons in front of her chest. It was a joke playing on her name of which the “Bunga Bunga” party host would have been proud.
Like Berlusconi, Meloni’s political method emphasizes the centrality of the leader as an individual “who speaks the language of the common people,” said Berlusconi’s biographer, Giovanni Orsina.
Both leaders try to address ordinary people’s immediate demands “without telling them what they should want,” said Orsina, a professor at Luiss University in Rome. “The leader does not project himself as better than his followers, he or she is one of us.”
Meloni’s offer to voters at last year’s Italian election — focused on helping humble small business owners and cutting taxes — “is a very Berlusconian programme”, said Orsina.
Both leaders had the ability to shape the public debate, via traditional or social media channels.
Berlusconi’s Mediaset TV channels allowed him to dominate the national conversation while in power for a decade. But these same channels also provided the environment for the wave of right-wing populism that allowed Meloni to thrive, although this was for commercial gain rather than by political design.
Then in 2008, Berlusconi took a fateful step. By bringing the post-fascist predecessors of Meloni’s Brothers of Italy in from the cold to form a right-wing coalition, he prepared the conditions for her group to enter the mainstream. “Without Berlusconi there would be no Meloni,” Vittorio Sgarbi, Undersecretary for Culture and a former minister in Berlusconi’s governments, told POLITICO.
Meanwhile, having the moderate center-right Forza Italia in Meloni’s current coalition helped give her far-right Brothers of Italy a veneer of respectability that made her acceptable to Europe and the U.S.
While Meloni is seen as far more right-wing than Berlusconi, the pool of voters they competed for is the same. Many supporters of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia moved to Meloni’s Brothers of Italy last year. “The center-right voters in Italy share a fundamental set of values on most issues and on world view,” according to Lorenzo Pregliasco of polling agency YouTrend. “They identified the strongest leadership in that field and voted for who was able to best express it: Berlusconi for 20 years, then Salvini, then Meloni.”
Rivals and allies
Despite the parallels, it was not a relationship without tensions. Meloni split from Berlusconi’s People of Liberty party in 2012, a rupture in relations that led directly to the creation of the Brothers of Italy party.
In 2016 Berlusconi opposed Meloni when she stood as a candidate to be mayor of Rome, on the basis that she was pregnant. Meloni did not forget it.
He could also be generous, as long as she did not pose a threat. In a 2017 interview with the weekly magazine Tempi, he said he had “always appreciated Giorgia’s determination, competence, intellectual courage, analytical skills.”
But he expected to be seen as the wise older statesman from who she would ask advice, and as Meloni rose, she declined to show him automatic deference. The two have sparred often.
He liked to play favorites, too, inviting Matteo Salvini, leader of the right-wing League party, to his recent wedding — and snubbing Meloni. After she appeared on one of his channels saying she “owed nothing to Berlusconi,” he reduced her appearances on air. On election day last year he was caught on video saying that he was “a little” scared of her.
When it mattered during last year’s elections, however, Meloni, who at 46 is a generation younger, took the leadership of the center-right for herself, without the older man’s help. Her party won 26 percent of the vote, to Berlusconi’s 8 percent when Italy went to the polls.
Berlusconi seemed to have difficulty accepting this, and the formation of the center-right government led by Meloni was fractious. He embarrassed her with outbursts expressing his support for Putin. In return she allocated mainly lowly ministries to his party and refused positions for some of his favorites.
During the negotiations Berlusconi was photographed with a piece of paper where he had written notes about Meloni being “overbearing, arrogant and offensive.” Even within the coalition, Forza Italia has opposed a raft of government measures, including an anti-rave decree, a raised limit on cash payments and green subsidies.
Now, Berlusconi’s death has the potential to strengthen Meloni as there are few other political homes for Forza Italia MPs. The League is doing badly in the polls and moving to the center would mean going into opposition. Within European politics, Forza Italia is a member of the EPP group. Meloni’s EU grouping, the ECR, may ally with the EPP at next year’s European Parliament elections. In his final interview last week, Berlusconi gave his blessing to an alliance between the EPP and the ECR.
Pugnacious but pragmatic, Meloni is a populist who likes to be seen as a fighter, while being willing to compromise for power. In a video message after Berlusconi’s death, she said: “With him Italy learnt never to impose limits on itself. It learnt never to assume it was beaten.” She might as well have been talking about herself.