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Who is Giuseppe Conte, the political novice now Italy's populist PM?

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Who is Giuseppe Conte, the political novice now Italy's populist PM?
Giuseppe Conte after his nomination as Italy's new premier. Photo: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP
14:40 CEST+02:00
Dubbed 'Mr Nobody', political novice Giuseppe Conte suddenly finds himself at the helm of one of the eurozone's largest economies, running a cabinet of far-right and anti-establishment ministers.

The little-known academic, 53, was sworn in as prime minister on Friday, less than a week after walking away amid a row over a proposed eurosceptic economy minister.

The devout Catholic and former leftist formally took the reins after darting down from lessons at the University of Florence a day earlier for last-ditch talks, which propelled him into the hot seat. Conte had given up the mandate handed to him by President Sergio Mattarella days after being nominated to head a coalition of the far-right League Party and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S).

He bounced right back after the partners agreed to jettison controversial financier Paolo Savona as finance minister, Mattarella's demand that they find someone else briefly sparking calls for the head of state's impeachment.

On Saturday, he will stand alongside Mattarella for Republic Day celebrations in Rome before jetting off to the G7 in Canada. 

READ ALSO: Italy swears in first fully populist government

Born in 1964 in the tiny village of Volturara Appula in the southern region of Puglia, 53-year-old Conte joined the anti-establishment Five Star Movement 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," Conte has been quoted as saying by Italian media.

A friend told state radio broadcaster Radio 1 that Conte is "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.

Who's boss?

Some analysts said Conte was likely to serve at the command of the leaders of the two groups forming the new government. They said M5S leader Luigi Di Maio and Matteo Salvini of the anti-immigrant League would call the shots. Both appointed to key ministerial posts within the new cabinet, Salvini and Di Maio will also serve as jointy deputy PMs.

"I think that he'll have to respond to what they want, do what they decide," Gianfranco Pasquino, political science professor at the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Bologna, told AFP.

"It doesn't seem that he has political experience so he will be forced to carry out the preferences of Di Maio and Salvini."

The Italian press has raised concerns over Conte's credibility as premier on the international scene. Left-wing newspaper La Repubblica branded him "a prime minister who will not count" in an editorial on Monday.

"What authority will he have when he goes to meet Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron?" it asked.

CV or not CV?

Di Maio had initially presented Conte as part of his team of ministers ahead of the March 4th general election. 

That was the general public's first glimpse of the discreet lawyer. He stayed out of sight in the talks between Five Star and the League to form an alliance after the inconclusive election.


Giuseppe Conte with Luigi Di Maio, leader of the Five Star Movement. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

After the parties nominated him, the media uncovered snippets of information about the likely future prime minister. He is reportedly separated from his wife with whom he has a 10-year-old son. Conte currently teaches private law at the University of Florence and at Rome's Luiss University.

In a CV posted on the website of a lawyers' association, Conte boasted of an impressive career in law and academia. His claims of study positions at some of the world's most prestigious universities were cast into doubt, however.

New York University (NYU) and the Sorbonne's law school told AFP they had no record of him as a student or faculty member. NYU said that he was granted permission to conduct research in its law library between 2008 and 2014. Cambridge University declined to give details about Conte.

Another of the institutions where he claims to have "furthered his juridical studies" was Vienna's Internationales Kulturinstitut – a language school.

Conte has yet to speak out publicly about the CV affair, but Di Maio and League chief Matteo Salvini staunchly defended him.

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." 

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By Ljubomir Milasin

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