After days of acrimony, Italy's Meloni and Berlusconi meet

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FILE - Forza Italia's Silvio Berlusconi, and Brothers of Italy's Giorgia Meloni attend the center-right coalition closing rally in Rome Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022. The resounding victory by far-right leader Giorgia Meloni in Sept. 25 elections for Parliament isn't sitting well with Silvio Berlusconi, the former three-time conservative premier who, 40 years her senior, fancies himself the elder statesman of Italy's political right. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia, File)

ROME – Italy’s presumed next premier, Giorgia Meloni, and former Premier Silvio Berlusconi sought to put days of acrimony behind them Monday by meeting privately and presenting a united front as they seek to form Italy’s first far-right-led government since World War II.

Officials from Meloni’s Brothers of Italy and Berlusconi’s Forza Italia parties issued a joint statement saying the meeting, held at Meloni’s Rome headquarters, was carried out in a spirit of “unity of intentions and maximum cordiality and collaboration.”

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The readout aimed to halt a slew of negative headlines about perceived fractures in the center-right coalition before formal consultations on forming a new Italian government begin, which are expected later this week.

The Brothers of Italy, which has its roots in a neo-fascist movement, won 26% of the vote in Italy’s Sept. 25 general election, the most of any party. It is poised to lead a right-wing government along with the center-right Forza Italia, which took 8%, and Matteo Salvini’s right-wing League party, which snared 9%.

Meloni, a former militant in the neofascist Italian Social Movement, is expected to be Italy's first female premier.

Tensions flared last week over the division of Cabinet posts, most spectacularly when Berlusconi scrawled a list of derogatory adjectives about Meloni on stationary in plain view of photographers covering Thursday's election of the Senate president: “Presumptuous, bossy, arrogant, offensive.”

After images of the notes went viral, Meloni shot back that Berlusconi had forgotten one: “That I’m not blackmail-able.”

It was a reference to an apparent Berlusconi power play that had failed. Most Forza Italia senators didn’t vote for Meloni’s candidate for Senate president, Ignazio La Russa, depriving him of a full victory. The stunt backfired, though, when La Russa sailed through and won on the first ballot anyway with the apparent votes of the opposition. The outcome suggested Meloni had outmaneuvered Berlusconi and thwarted his show of force as he sought to place a loyalist in her future Cabinet.

The tensions betrayed obvious policy differences between the two but also underscored something of a generational power shift within the Italian right. Berlusconi, an 86-year-old three-time premier, has seen Forza Italia’s star fade in recent years and has been forced to cede the political limelight and leadership to the next generation in Meloni, 45, who was youth minister in Berlusconi’s final 2008-2011 government.

“The votes for La Russa from the minority show that the adversaries aren’t just divided,” wrote analyst Massimo Franco in this weekend’s Corriere della Sera. “They make clear that the power of Forza Italia to influence the leader of Brothers of Italy has reached conspicuous limits."

Franco said the big question is whether the coalition can survive the tensions longer term.

After Monday’s meeting, both parties vowed to present themselves as a united front during the consultations with President Sergio Mattarella, who is expected to ask Meloni to try to form a government. The two parties said that, along with allies in the League, they were already “at work to give Italy a strong, cohesive and high-profile government as soon as possible.”

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