Giuseppe Conte, an understated pick to lead Italy's populist government

Rome (AFP) –


Little-known lawyer and academic, Giuseppe Conte is set for a dramatic debut in the cut-throat world of Italian politics, as prime minister to lead an anti-establishment, far-right coalition government.

The elegant 54-year-old hails from the populist Five Star Movement (M5S) after reportedly turning his back on the country's left.

"I used to vote left. Today, I think that the ideologies of the 20th century are no longer adequate (for 21st century politics)," Conte has been quoted as saying by Italian media.

Five star leader Luigi Di Maio said he was "very proud to present this name" as he left the presidential palace on Monday afternoon.

"He will not be a burden for the Italian people," Di Maio said.

Di Maio had initially presented Conte as part of his team of ministers ahead of the March 4 general election, putting him in charge of simplifying the country's infamous bureaucracy.

That was the general public's first and so far only encounter with the discreet lawyer, who remained invisible in the government talks that saw Five Star and the far-right League party strike a coalition deal after inconclusive elections.

Franco Pavoncello, a political scientist and president of Rome's John Cabot University who knows Conte thanks to the PM candidate's position on the institution's board of trustees, told AFP that he is "a man of integrity".

"I don't believe that he will go against his own conscience. He's not a man who's going to make himself feel uncomfortable in terms of making decisions," said Pavoncello.

- 'Possible lack of authority' -

Born in 1964 in the tiny village of Volturara Appula in the southern region of Puglia, Conte has had an impressive career in law and academia.

His CV boasts study and research positions at some of the world's most prestigious universities, including Cambridge University, the Sorbonne and New York University.

He runs a law studio in Rome, and currently teaches private law courses in Florence and at Luiss University in the capital Rome.

The lawyer is separated from his wife with whom he has a 10-year-old son.

Without calling Conte's professional and intellectual attributes into question, the Italian press has raised concerns over his credibility as premier on the international scene.

Left-wing newspaper La Repubblica branded him "a prime minster who will not count" in an editorial Monday, asking: "What authority will he have when he goes to meet Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron?"

However Pavoncello doesn't believe that Conte will be pushed around.

"I would be surprised if he would passively accept everything without putting forward his own understanding of how things should be done," he said.

Conte is faced with the daunting scenario of having to contend with bullish League party chief Matteo Salvini and M5S head Di Maio, who are tipped to hold key ministerial posts within his cabinet.

"He's in a very difficult situation because he has to deal with two groups who have formed a difficult compromise," says Pavoncello.

"What remains to be seen is whether he's going to be able to control the various political directions in which this coalition was formed."

Media reported that his WhatsApp account displays a quote attributed to former US President John F. Kennedy: "Every success begins with the willingness to try."