Meloni will continue to play with Salvini. Hold on.

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Giorgia Meloni is on track to complete a takeover of the Italian right.

Just four years ago, his Brothers of Italy party was a fringe force, often portrayed in the media as a sideshow and accused by rivals of serving as a vehicle for neo-fascism in a country where the Mussolini years still spark heated debates.

Now she is leading in the polls ahead of next month’s general election. Meloni’s rise to the upper echelons of Italian politics has upended the balance of power – what was once toxic is no longer so – as the national discourse tilts further to the right.

Eight weeks from the vote, there is talk of a landslide – an outcome made more likely by the weekend collapse of a short-lived centre-left coalition. But a convincing victory would still not guarantee a stable government. It’s because of the inevitable clash of egos between Meloni, Matteo Salvini, the League’s leader and dominant figure on the right before it emerged, and ageless former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.

They all insist that the trio is “compatto”, which roughly translates to tight and close. But Meloni knows she has the upper hand – and makes the rules. She publicly told her allies that their plan had to be economically credible – a nod to budget watchers in Brussels and the bond markets – casting doubt on Berlusconi’s desired pension increases or the tax cuts advocated by Salvini.

Likewise, Meloni warned her allies that she would not negotiate names and jobs before the election results. It’s a warning shot for Salvini that she will be the one handing out the election prizes – and further evidence of a new audacity. He will surely get irritated, but he will have no choice but to bite the bullet and operate on his terms. How it does this, and for how long, may well determine the success and longevity of the coalition.

There’s no denying that Meloni is running a shrewd campaign. She gave her constituents what they wanted to hear: family values, a vocal critique of the left, the promise of new jobs and tough language on crime and migration.

In doing so, she sucked the oxygen out of Salvini’s message. He has seen his support nearly halve since his peak in power when he played tough guy as Home Secretary. The League has lost its stamina and the shock factor that propelled Salvini to center stage four years ago has run out. Although Meloni and Salvini are allies, they compete for the same electorate.

The key difference is that Meloni is this year’s role model and the League carries the baggage of two terms in government.

In fact, being in a cabinet didn’t work out for Salvini. The first time he served as minister, his decision to force an election in 2019 backfired and he was ousted. More recently, Salvini helped trigger the collapse of Mario Draghi’s administration at a time when Italians seemed to favor stability. The result? Meloni is 10 points ahead of him.

Meanwhile, Meloni tries to look like a responsible European, accentuating the contrast with Salvini. She says she’s not flirting with Russia – a blow to the League, which is still marred by controversy over its alleged ties to Moscow and sympathy for Moscow. She expressed her support for NATO. As Bloomberg News reported, his aides said Meloni would refrain from fighting with Brussels, remaining constructive on the reforms needed to free up EU funding. Italexit – a withdrawal from the euro – plays no role in his campaign.

Time will tell if she’s serious, but so far Meloni is showing she’s learned from the populists’ mistakes. Their tough tactics and inflammatory language shook the markets.

While that may be comforting to investors, it may not sit well with his constituents who often come across as the most skeptical on issues such as sanctions against Russia. Playing the double game of moderate abroad and instigator at home will surely put his skills to the test. But maybe not as much as his ability to lead a government while controlling Salvini.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• No need to fear the Italexit zombie: Maria Tadeo

• Draghi left his mark even if the coalition falls: Rachel Sanderson

• European bond yields settle for less than 3-2-1: Marcus Ashworth

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Maria Tadeo is Bloomberg Television’s European correspondent based in Brussels where she covers European politics, economics and NATO.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

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