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Italy’s new leader Conte: ‘Untested maestro of a cacophonous orchestra’

Francesco Amendola, AFP | Giuseppe Conte, 54, addresses the press at the Quirinale palace in Rome after his meeting with Italy's President Sergio Mattarella.

Italy’s victorious “anti-system” parties had promised a prime minister who would be "uncontestable", elected by the people, and not a technocrat. As it turns out, their nominee Giuseppe Conte is none of the above – and a complete unknown to boot.


A law professor described as “allergic to bureaucracy”, Conte was formally asked to form Italy’s next government after talks with President Sergio Mattarella on Wednesday. His appointment follows 11 drama-filled weeks of political deadlock triggered by a general election that witnessed the rise of Eurosceptic forces.

Conte, who has no experience of politics, was plucked from obscurity by the anti-establishment Five-Star Movement just days before the March 4 election, in which the party led by 31-year-old Luigi Di Maio emerged as the largest force in a hung parliament.

Five-Star has since agreed to form an unnatural coalition with Matteo Salvini’s hard-right League party, the election’s other nominal winner. But with Di Maio and Salvini vetoing each other for the top job, Conte has emerged as the sole compromise candidate suitable to both.

Luigi Di Maio, 31, celebrates with supporters after his Five-Star Movement became Italy's biggest party in the March 4 election.
Luigi Di Maio, 31, celebrates with supporters after his Five-Star Movement became Italy's biggest party in the March 4 election. Carlo Hermann, AFP

The 54-year-old professor will now be in charge of implementing an unwieldy and costly coalition programme he did not draft, and which is destined to put debt-laden Italy on a collision course with the European Union.

Ironically, his appointment comes after both parties spent much of the past decade railing against his “unelected” predecessors Matteo Renzi and Mario Monti, and vowing that the next prime minister would be chosen by Italian voters.

“We’ve seen this before,” says Pierangelo Isernia, a professor of political science at Siena University, pointing to a history of technocrats and mid-ranking politicians emerging as compromise candidates for the prime minister’s job. “What’s new this time is that Conte is a Mister Nobody with no electoral or political base whatsoever.”

‘Fake’ CV

That startling lack of political pedigree is perhaps why Conte overstated his academic credentials in a lengthy resume that has been mercilessly unpicked by the Italian and foreign press over the past 48 hours.

The 12-page document covers the years since Conte earned his law degree from Rome's Sapienza University in 1988. It features entries for time spent at an array of top universities in the United States, Britain and France, including seven summer stints at New York University that turned out to involve only having library privileges there.

Similar doubts have arisen regarding brief “stays” at the Sorbonne University in Paris, Cambridge University's Girton College and the University of Malta, while a Vienna-based institute where Conte “perfected” his legal studies has said it only gives language courses.

Critics have heaped scorn on the professor’s “fake” CV, highlighting the discrepancy with Five-Star’s repeated pledge to field only honest and squeaky-clean candidates. Analysts, however, have mostly played down the incident, noting that it is hardly uncommon in Italy to exaggerate one’s curriculum.

“As a scholar myself, I’m surprised Conte would want to list all his summer visits to academic institutions,” said Isernia, though adding that Conte’s attempts to embellish his CV “smacked more of the provincialism of a parvenu than of a deadly sin".

‘Child prodigy’

Conte’s reputation as a dapper dresser, with a penchant for three-piece suits and pocket handkerchiefs, belies his modest origins in Italy’s impoverished south.

The country’s future prime minister was born in Volturara Appula, a village of just 400 residents in the southernmost Puglia region, the son of a town hall office worker and an elementary school teacher. Talking to ANSA news agency, his own teacher at the time described him as a “child prodigy”.

>> Read more: Will Italy’s new populist government cause a rerun of the Greek crisis?

During his university years in Rome, Conte lived at the Vatican-affiliated Villa Nazareth, a residential college that houses low-income students in the Italian capital. Nicholas Cafardi, a canon lawyer at Duquesne University, which has an exchange program with Villa Nazareth, has described him as precisely the type of motivated but economically disadvantaged Italian that the college sought out.

"He's a 'pull-himself-up-by-his-bootstraps' type," Cafardi told the Associated Press. "He's got where he is today because of very, very hard work."

A devout Catholic, Conte later taught at the Vatican-sponsored LUMSA University in the mid-1990s, and is said to enjoy close ties with influential Cardinal Achille Silvestrini, one of the Church’s behind-the-scenes power brokers.

Left/right ideologies 'inadequate'

The new leader’s southern roots are an asset for the Five-Star Movement, whose campaign pledge of a guaranteed basic income for the poorest households resonated in a region blighted by unemployment.

Like many Five-Star supporters, Conte comes from the left of the political spectrum. However, he has recently argued that the “ideologies of the 20th century are no longer adequate” – a view that puts him in line with the anti-establishment party’s “neither left nor right” pitch.

Lega leader Matteo Salvini has trumped Silvio Berlusconi as the dominant force on the right.
Lega leader Matteo Salvini has trumped Silvio Berlusconi as the dominant force on the right. Miguel Medina, AFP

While Conte is naturally seen as closer to Di Maio, his views on the stifling effect of Italy’s gargantuan bureaucratic rules are just as popular with Salvini’s northern-based, right-wing constituency – whose views are otherwise starkly opposed to those of most Five-Star supporters.

In one of his rare public outings, Conte has declared that given the opportunity, he would slash hundreds of "useless laws". Earlier this week, Salvini championed him as "an expert of simplification, de-bureaucratisation and streamlining the administrative machine – that's what so many businesses want".


Italy’s president, however, has been noticeably less enthusiastic. Unusually, Mattarella waited a full two days after the coalition formally endorsed Conte before asking him to form a government.

Coming after months of bickering over who should get the prime minister’s job, the two parties’ ardent support for Conte has been viewed with suspicion at the Quirinale, Italy’s presidential palace, amid fears the untested professor may not have the independence and mettle required to lead a coalition of ambitious but uneasy bedfellows.

Mattarella is also deeply uncomfortable with the League’s candidate for economy minister, Paolo Savona, a fierce critic of the euro. As a sweetener, more Europhile profiles are now being touted for other portfolios – at the risk of making this unnatural coalition even more discordant.

Already, both EU officials and financial markets have been skittish in their response to coalition’s programme, which, in addition to Five-Star’s basic income, includes a two-tier flat tax that will further inflate Italy's debt load, Europe's heaviest after Greece.

In this volatile context, the drama surrounding Conte’s appointment is a worrying sign of things to come, says Isernia, likening Italy’s government in the making to “a cacophonous orchestra whose maestro has no experience of conducting".

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