Giuseppe Conte: Italy’s unintentional prime minister?

Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte will take part in the RAI talk show Porta a Porta on January 8, 2019 in Rome.

Alessandra Benedetti – Corbis | Corbis News | Getty Images

In June 2018, Giuseppe Conte – a lawyer and academic with no political experience – became Italy’s Prime Minister on the basis of a compromise.

At the time, the then leaders of the Italian Five Star Movement (M5S) against the establishment, Luigi Di Maio, and the Lega party against immigration led by Matteo Salvini could not choose between them who would become Prime Minister after them a coalition government.

So they named Conte, an independent, unaffiliated party, a top job. He was largely viewed at the time as a technocrat with the sole responsibility of overseeing the government program of Lega and M5S.

That didn’t go smoothly, however, and power in Rome has since changed hands. This happened after Salvini issued a vote of no confidence in Conte in the summer of 2019.

This forced the collapse of the coalition government (of which he belonged), sparked an election, and was widely viewed as an attempted takeover by Salvini, a divisive but popular politician who was highly rated in voter polls at the time.

The move failed, however, when the M5S and the Democratic Party (PD) agreed to form a new government and Conte continued to serve as prime minister. The unlikely alliance of the M5S and PD was a sigh of relief for many officials in Europe as it would likely weaken the previous administration’s tougher Eurosceptic stance.

Some analysts stepped into the role of prime minister almost by accident, saying that Conte has indeed thrived, has become popular with the public, and manages political affairs well.

Italy is not an easy country to operate. Suffice it to say that Italy has had five prime ministers over the past 10 years. Conte certainly took longer in the mail than other newer Premier League holders; Conte’s predecessors, Paolo Gentiloni, Mario Monti and Enrico Letta, each lasted less than two years, and Matteo Renzi was only slightly longer than Conte’s current tenure.

“As with so many things in Italian politics, temporary and emergency measures often take well beyond their original shelf life. The post of prime minister is no exception,” Federico Santi, senior Europe analyst at Eurasia Group, told CNBC.

“So I can’t say I’m too surprised that Conte held out for so long – even though he has proven to be more resilient and adaptable than many originally thought he was capable of. This is partly due to circumstances, partly to Conte’s own ability to play political mood of the moment, “he noted.

Santi said Conte was far from his first “hesitant and clumsy press conference” which showed he could hardly believe the turning point of events that led him to lead the EU’s third largest country.

To blame Conte for his guilt, Santi remarked that he “really got his money’s worth” in 2019 when Lega leader Salvini brought about the collapse of the government.

“Instead of appeasing him, Conte pushed back against the far-right leader and created an opening for the center-left PD to replace Lega as M5S coalition partner. Once again, neither party wanted to hand over control of the government to the other. that made Conte an obvious choice. “

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte (R), flanked by Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Matteo Salvini (L), will deliver a speech to the Italian Senate in Rome on August 20, 2019 as the country faces a political crisis.

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Conte’s political inexperience and “undisputed” profile, and what one political analyst called his “polite, calm” personality – attributes his media team highlighted – could have helped bring him to the attention of the public.

“Conte used the media carefully and thoughtfully, also thanks to the support of professional employees”, who had contributed to maintaining a media image of Conte as a representative of “reliability and political competence, empathy, calmness and personal exchange in times of the collective” Difficulty, “says Marino De Luca, Marie Sklodowska-Curie Research Fellow at the University of Sussex’s Department of Politics.

“In the beginning he didn’t seem to be able to last long (in the role) because of his inexperience. Instead, he has shown that he can withstand political attack,” he told CNBC.

Pandemic policy

The 2020 coronavirus pandemic would have been challenging enough for seasoned political leaders, let alone top positions for less than two years.

Conte was in the eye of the storm when the virus first appeared in northern Italy in February. The Italian government imposed localized bans in Lombardy and Veneto, where there were first clusters of cases, and then a national bans.

According to Santi from the Eurasia Group, the pandemic could have prevented Conte’s opponents from ousting him from office, but not for long.

“As with many other executives on the continent, Conte benefited from a noticeable ‘rally for the flag’ effect, regardless of their actual track record in managing Covid-19,” said Santi.

De Luca noted, however, that the pandemic had led to public criticism of Conte in Italy as well, particularly amid a second wave of infections. Italy is still operating under strict coronavirus restrictions that are not being relaxed over Christmas like other European countries as Italy tries to avoid a third wave of cases.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte will hold a press conference in Rome on July 7, 2020.

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“Something changed with the second wave,” said De Luca. “Its popularity has declined. Its decisions are more likely to be contested by citizens or the self-employed and other categories of workers such as restaurateurs,” he said.

There has also been renewed friction in the ruling coalition of Italy, most recently due to the administration of the EU recovery funds for Italy in the wake of the pandemic and the reform of the European stability mechanism, the rescue fund for the euro zone.

Numerous rebels within M5S had threatened to oppose the government in order to support reform at the EU level. In the end, the Italian Parliament gave the Prime Minister permission to approve the changes in December (December 9th) when EU leaders met at a summit on December 10th and 11th.

According to Wolfango Piccoli, co-president of Teneo Intelligence, the pandemic allowed Conte “to concentrate power and give his political supporters significant leeway,” but has since been found to be flawed.

“The government’s disastrous management of the second wave of Covid-19, coupled with inefficient use of financial aid to businesses and workers and amateur communication policies, has undermined Conte’s reputation,” Piccoli said in a note.

Piccoli has forecast a limited cabinet reshuffle in January as the fragile ruling coalition tries to resolve its differences and formulate a new political program. But, he said, “Looking ahead, the third government of Conte will remain a fragile intergovernmental agreement that is utterly inadequate to lift the country out of the economic swamp created by the pandemic.”

The prospect of new elections is still a long way off, experts say, but Federico Santi of the Eurasia Group noted that “Conte is still on shaky ground”.

“Neither party in the government wants early elections, which remain a distant prospect. But many in the coalition would welcome a change of government that introduces a new prime minister backed by a similar coalition in parliament,” Santi said.

“I suspect that attempts to get rid of Conte will resume in earnest as the healthcare emergency gradually subsides over the next year.”

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