Europe News

Italy could be getting a prime minister no one's ever heard of

Key Points
  • Italy's Five Star Movement (M5S) and Lega party agreed on who the next prime minister should be — but most Italians have never heard of him.
  • Private law professor Giuseppe Conte could be the new prime minister if approved.
  • Italy is a step closer to implementing a governing coalition and restoring a political structure to the country.
Five Star, Lega propose law professor Giuseppe Conte as new prime minister

Italy's Five Star Movement (M5S) and Lega party have proposed a professor called Giuseppe Conte as the country's next prime minister — but hardly anyone has heard of him.

M5S and Lega's leaders, Luigi Di Maio and Matteo Salvini, agreed to nominate private law professor Giuseppe Conte and he'll also be the leader of a coalition government made up of the two parties.

The two politicians presented their choice to Italian President Sergio Mattarella Monday but the head of state is not obliged to accept the nomination and the search for a leader could continue. For now, Mattarella has summoned the speakers of Italy's bicameral parliament for further talks.

Relatively unknown in political and public life, even Italian newspapers are publishing profiles and biographies on the professor to give the country's voters the lowdown — many of whom are asking, "Who is Giuseppe Conte?"

"Who's ever heard of him?," Carlo Arrighi, an ice-cream maker in central Rome, said, according to a Reuters report, echoing other sentiments on social media. "It would have been better if they had chosen someone who was elected."

The 54-year-old comes from the region of Puglia in southeast Italy and graduated from La Sapienza University in Rome after studying law, before "perfecting" his studies at places like Yale, Duquesne, the International Kultur Institut in Vienna, La Sorbonne in France, Cambridge and New York University, according to a profile page.

But the Corriere della Sera newspaper stated that while Conte has "a very long curriculum (vitae)" he doesn't "have a clue about politics." The newspaper did concede that Conte "is certainly a technician" and has experience in business and administrative, financial and civil law. La Stampa newspaper added that he has been the director of "numerous legal journals."

Pasquale Tridico, member of Five Stars Movement, attends the presentation of would-be cabinet in case of election victory on March 1, 2018 in Rome, Italy. Italy is set to hold a general election to form a new parliament and government on March 4, 2018.(Photo by Alessandra Benedetti - Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images)
Alessandra Benedetti - Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images

In addition, the paper noted that Conte is a member of the Scientific Committee of the Italian Notary Foundation, was a part of the Board of the Italian Space Agency and in 2013 the Parliament appointed him as a member of the Board of Directors of Administrative Justice.

Meanwhile, La Repubblica newspaper noted that Conte's CV states that he is also an expert on "managing large companies in crisis," which the paper noted "will be useful in events such as Ilva or Alitalia." Ilva is an Italian steel company going through a pollution scandal and Alitalia is national airline that recently went bankrupt.

Conte has taught extensively in Italy and currently lectures in private law at universities in Florence and Bologna.

A friend of M5S

Conte's name was initially flagged up by M5S just ahead of the election in March when the movement's leader, Di Maio, stated that the professor would be nominated as minister for public administration and simplification (a ministry charged with simplifying laws and regulations) in any M5S-led administration.

During the election campaign, Di Maio had called Conte a "sburocratizzatore" — akin to a "de-bureaucratizer" — while Conte himself declared during the campaign that Italy needs to "abolish useless laws" (he said there were more than the 400 indicated by Di Maio) and that Italy's anti-corruption laws need to be strengthened. He also stated that reforms to transform poorly-performing schools must be introduced.

Ahead of the election, Di Maio denied that a cabinet featuring experts and academics like Conte (and other professors then tipped to lead various ministries) would represent a technocratic cabinet, arguing instead that people like Conte "know what they are talking about," Reuters reported.

Italy's future governing parties over-promised during election campaigning: Analyst

Now, with M5S' all-but certain coalition with the Lega party, Di Maio and Salvini presented Conte as their candidate for prime minister, as well as a proposed cabinet formed of M5S and Lega ministers, on Monday.

Remarking on the presentation of Conte's name to the president for consideration, the leader of the anti-immigrant, euroskeptic Lega party, said the party was ready to govern.

"We are ready. We have given our name, we have made clear the team and the project for the country," he told reporters.

"The government of which we play a part wants to make Italy grow, to increase jobs. We want to bring back companies to invest in Italy. We want jobs to become more stable."

Meanwhile Di Maio said the government would be political rather than technocratic.

"It will be a government that puts at the center political questions. Maybe I want to say also at an international level, let us get to work first and then criticize us. You have every right to do so, but let us start first," he said.

The party leaders are expected to take senior positions in the government with Salvini seen as becoming interior minister and Di Maio minister for economic development or labor. The economy ministry would reportedly go to Giancarlo Giorgetti.

Critics fear that Conte could merely become a spokesman for Salvini and Di Maio — whose relationship in politics and ambitious party pledges have yet to be tried and tested.

Inconclusive election in March

Di Maio and Salvini's decision to elect a prime minister rather than take the role themselves (a possibility vetoed by both of them) comes after a delicate process of negotiation in a bid to form a coalition government in Italy after an inconclusive election in March. Obstacles have been presented by political alliances and antipathies along the way.

M5S was the single most popular party in the election but Lega was the most popular party in a coalition of far-right and center-right parties, which included former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia party.

After multiple insults traded between Berlusconi and M5S' Di Maio, however, a possible coalition between M5S and the center-right coalition looked unlikely, leaving Lega's Salvini to take the lead and Berlusconi and other coalition partners seemingly out in the cold.

The alliance between Lega and M5S has yet to be tested, however, and could spell trouble for Europe with the maverick parties announcing Friday plans to increase public spending. They are also expected to call for an end to sanctions on Russia and want to renegotiate how much Italy pays into the EU budget — all plans that could create headaches for the European Union and euro zone.