Rome - If you have never heard of Italy’s possible new prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, then you are in good company. Neither have the vast majority of Italians. A law professor at Florence University with no political experience, Conte has been plucked from obscurity by the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement and the far-right League as a front-man to head their big-spending government. “Who’s ever heard of him?”, said Carlo Arrighi, an ice-cream maker in central Rome. “It would have been better if they had chosen someone who was elected.” 5-Star leader Luigi Di Maio told reporters he had recommended to President Sergio Mattarella that Conte should lead the new coalition. The head of state is not obliged to accept the request and could yet seek another candidate. Conte is close to 5-Star and was one of the people put forward by the party before the inconclusive March 4 election, when he vowed to simplify Italy’s labyrinthine bureaucracy.
“First we have to drastically abolish useless laws,” Conte said, adding that there were “many more” than the 400 pieces of superfluous legislation previously cited by Di Maio. That was the first time Conte, 54, had appeared in the public spotlight, though he is on the board of numerous academic and judicial bodies and had participated in conferences on justice matters organised by 5-Star. Italy is no stranger to unelected, “technocrat” prime ministers, but in the past they have usually been called in by the president to get the country out of a crisis, and they have picked their own cabinet and set their own agenda. This time 5-Star and the League have spent 10 days hammering out a joint programme and only picked someone to execute the programme at the end of the process. “The situation is pretty unprecedented and bizarre, so it’s hard to predict how it is going to end up,” said Giovanni Orsina, politics professor at Rome’s Luiss University. Orsina said the way Conte had got the job nomination made him appear weak, but that may not necessarily be the case. “It all depends on his personality,” he said. “He is being put there as a notary to follow the parties’ orders, but the position of prime minister carries its own strength and he will be the one that holds everything together.”
Fearful their own party would be relegated to the junior position in the coalition, Di Maio and League leader Matteo Salvini each vetoed the other getting the prime minister’s job. Both are expected to be senior ministers in the cabinet. An opinion poll by Demos and Pi published on Sunday showed that a third-party prime minister, approved by both Salvini and Di Maio, was the most popular option among Italians. Conte comes from the south-eastern region of Puglia, a bedrock of 5-Star support, but graduated in Rome, where he runs a legal practice. He likes to dress smartly, wearing cufflinks and with a handkerchief poking out of his breast pocket. He has contributed to dozens of publications on legal matters and studied for brief spells at Yale, New York University, Cambridge and other foreign universities. He has taught law all over Italy and has a full professorship in Florence. It was in the Tuscan capital that he established relations with 5-Star through Alfonso Bonafede, a Florentine lawyer and senior lawmaker who is the party’s pick to be justice minister. His appointment still has to be approved by President Sergio Mattarella, and Italian media have reported that the president would have preferred a more high-profile and elected figure. “I hope no one poses any vetoes on a choice that represents the will of the majority of the Italians,” Salvini said on Sunday, in comments that seemed aimed at Mattarella. Without naming Conte, he said the parties had settled on a “a figure who is acceptable to both of us, with irreproachable professional experience.”