ROME (AP) — Italy’s president started formal consultations with political leaders Thursday with the aim of quickly giving the country a new government, which is expected to be the country’s first led by the far right since the end of World War II.
But a spat between the presumed premier-to-be, Brothers of Italy party leader Giorgia Meloni, and former Premier Silvio Berlusconi, who bills himself as the most moderate leader of their potential alliance, could complicate President Sergio Mattarella’s aim of ensuring the next governing is viable and cohesive.
Mattarella will decide who gets tasked with assembling a coalition after meeting on Friday with Meloni, Berlusconi and the third main right-wing figure, League leader Matteo Salvini.
Meloni’s party, which has staunchly backed Ukraine in its defense against Russia’s invasion, triumphed in Italy’s general election last month. But relations with campaign ally Berlusconi have since soured. Audio tapes of him expressing sympathy for Russian President Vladimir Putin during a huddle with lawmakers from Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party emerged this week.
Mattarella started sounding out parliamentary and party leaders by receiving the new leader of the Italian Senate, Ignazio La Russa. He is a co-founder of Meloni’s party, which has neo-fascist roots. La Russa described his 15-minute session with Mattarella as “cordial,” but gave no details.
Mattarella’s was devoting his first day of consultations to smaller parties and the larger opposition forces, which are squabbling among themselves, notably the populist 5-Star Movement and the center-left Democratic Party.
Throughout campaigning for the Sept. 25 election, Berlusconi insisted he was an unwavering champion of NATO and the United States.
But leaked audio tapes of his take on the Ukraine war, made public by Italian news agency LaPresse, seemed to reveal otherwise. Berlusconi, holding court with his lawmakers, sought to justify Putin’s decision to send troops into Ukraine nearly eight months ago, saying the Russian leader had aimed for a two-week incursion with the goal of installing a “decent, sensible” government in Ukraine’s capital.
Berlusconi, a longtime admirer of Putin’s, also is heard writing off Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelenskyy, saying “let’s forget” him.
In an interview published Thursday in Italy’s Corriere della Sera newspaper, Berlusconi accused the media of “distorted and frankly ridiculous interpretations on my thought” on Russia and Ukraine. He denied trying to justify Russia’s invasion of its neighbor.
“On the contrary, I reiterate, for the latest, and I hope, last time, that my position coincides absolutely with that of the Italian government, of the European Union, of the (NATO) Atlantic Alliance, of our American allies, and it’s a clear-cut condemnation of the military attack against a free and sovereign State,” the newspaper quoted the former premier as saying.
Meloni threw down a gauntlet to Berlusconi with a Wednesday night statement in which she said there was no room for foreign policy differences in the government she intends to lead.
“Whoever isn’t in agreement with this cornerstone, will not be able to be part of the government, even if it means no government,” she said.
Berlusconi has pushed for a top aide, former European Parliament President Antonio Tajani, to become the foreign minister in a Meloni government. It wasn’t immediately clear if Berlusconi’s sympathy toward Putin had eliminated that option.
Tajani wasted no time in trying for damage control. He tweeted he would be attending the summit on Friday of the European People’s Party, a conservative political grouping that includes Forza Italia. At that forum, he said he would confirm his and his party’s support for Ukraine.
“In every institutional venue, we have always supported freedom and condemned the Russian invasion,” Tajani wrote.
Frances D’emilio, The Associated Press