Italy's PM Conte: 'Mr Nobody' who found his voice

Rome (AFP) –


Dubbed "Mr Nobody" when he was named Italy's prime minister, Giuseppe Conte became increasingly assertive in a political crisis that has ripped apart the governing coalition.

He announced Tuesday he would resign after 14 months of efforts to hold together a cabinet of far-right and anti-establishment ministers.

The discreet former academic, 55, lacerated his far-right deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini in the Senate after he pulled the plug on the coalition with the Five Star Movement (M5S) on August 8.

Agreed to as a compromise candidate by Salvini and fellow deputy prime minister Luigi Di Maio last year, Italians have become used to Conte's soft-spoken declarations and the impossibility of his coming up with policies against the wishes of his deputies.

But Conte has become more strident as the summer's political crisis played out, with his dislike and distrust of Salvini becoming increasingly clear.

He slammed Salvini's "obsession" with immigration, noting that his government "has worked a lot and wasn't at the beach," a clear dig at the League party leader who has spent little time in his office, instead campaigning in his swimming trunks despite there being no election.

The premier nevertheless has the support of Di Maio, who -- shortly before Conte's resignation announcement -- described him as "a rare pearl, a servant of the nation that Italy cannot lose".

- From academic to PM -

Born in 1964 in the tiny village of Volturara Appula in the southern region of Puglia, Conte was a law lecturer at the University of Florence.

A devout Catholic and former leftist turned M5S supporter, he taught law at the University of Florence and at Rome's Luiss University.

But his claims of study positions at some of the world's most prestigious universities were cast into doubt, however.

He moved from academia to the corridors of power in June 2018 when he became premier.

"I used to vote left. Today, I think that the ideologies of the 20th century are no longer adequate," Conte once said.

Di Maio, also from Italy's poorer south, hailed Conte as "someone from the periphery of this country ... who has made something of himself".

Conte is reportedly "very religious" and devoted to mystic Catholic saint Padre Pio, who lived in Puglia.

The saint was famous for exhibiting "stigmata" -- marks on his body supposedly matching the crucifixion wounds of Jesus Christ.

- Caught in the middle -

In February, Conte was caught on microphone telling German Chancellor Angela Merkel at Davos that Salvini was leaving little space for the M5S in government.

"My strength is that when I say 'OK now we stop', they (Salvini and Di Maio) don't fight anymore," he said.

But as Salvini and the League gained popular support with staunch anti-migrant policies and anti-EU diatribes, the M5S lost support and the gap between Conte and Salvini widened.

Conte tried to assert himself, sometimes successfully, such as when he demanded the resignation of a Salvini ally and junior minister suspected of corruption.

He also ended a M5S-League dispute over a trans-Alpine rail tunnel to which M5S was virulently opposed, with the project now going ahead.

Some within M5S see Conte playing a future leading role in the party, while others see him leading a new political force.

But Conte himself has always said that he will only have one go at politics and then return to teaching.

Nevertheless, rumours are now swirling that he could be named as Italy's future EU commissioner in Brussels.

Conte is separated from his wife and has an 11-year-old son who shares his passion for football.

On Tuesday, as Italy's latest political crisis played out, a banner could be seen hanging from a window near parliament: "Conte, Italy loves you."