PROFILE: Italy’s Giuseppe Conte, from ‘populist puppet’ to political survivor

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte took office with no political experience, but has proved remarkably adept at staying in power - so far.

PROFILE: Italy's Giuseppe Conte, from 'populist puppet' to political survivor
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. Photo: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP

The once-obscure law professor has been at the helm of two governments of different political persuasions since 2018 – and may now be about to form a third.

READ ALSO: Italian PM Conte to resign in hope of forming new government

“I think he has rather uncommon qualities … otherwise he would not have got to where he is, and above all stayed there, despite all odds,” remarked political journalist Francesco Bei.

For the past few weeks, 56-year-old Conte has been fighting for his government's survival after former premier Matteo Renzi withdrew his small Italia Viva party from the ruling coalition.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte (C) leaves Palazzo Madama, the Senate building in Rome, on Tuesday after narrowly winning a confidence vote. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

On Tuesday, Conte is set to offer his resignation to President Mattarella.

Media reports suggest Conte will seek a mandate to form a new government – the so-called Conte ter, or “Conte three” – to run the country.
Conte survived a parliamentary vote of confidence last week but failed to secure a majority in the Senate, the upper house, leaving his government severely weakened. 
Renzi had for weeks lambasted Conte for his handling of the pandemic.

But Conte has enjoyed approval ratings topping 60 percent during the pandemic, and has seen his influence grow at home and abroad after his approach of locking down Italy was watched closely, and then followed, by governments across Europe.

“Populist puppet”

Conte was dubbed “Mr Nobody” when he was appointed in 2018 to take over a fractious coalition comprising the initially anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) and Matteo Salvini's far-right League.

He introduced himself as “the people's advocate”, and said he was happy to lead a populist government if that meant listening to people's needs and working “to remove old privileges and entrenched powers.”

In the first few terrifying months of the pandemic, the seemingly unflappable Conte appeared to many Italians as a safe pair of hands.

“Let's keep our distance today, so that we may be able to hug each other with more warmth tomorrow,” he said at the start of a national lockdown in March.

Photo: AFP

With Italy the first European Union country to be hit badly, Conte leveraged the crisis to plead for more solidarity and eventually secured the largest slice of a 750-billion-euro ($906 billion) EU recovery fund – worth around 200-billion-euros ($196 billion).

Conte's approval ratings surged to 65 percent, according to an Ipsos survey for the Corriere della Sera newspaper.

In January ratings were still in the mid-50s – despite some signs of popular impatience with him.

Renzi has accused the premier and M5S of squandering the EU funds and failing to have the vision to spend it well.

READ ALSO: How Italy plans to spend its €222 billion coronavirus recovery fund

Critics also claim Conte hesitates over key decisions and failed to use the lull in infection rates last summer to prepare for a second wave that has proved deadlier than the first.

'Devout Catholic'

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 also taught at Rome's Luiss University – although he has been accused of inflating parts
of his CV.

Conte is reportedly “very religious” and devoted to mystic Catholic saint Padre Pio, who was famous for exhibiting “stigmata”: body marks supposedly
matching the crucifixion wounds of Jesus Christ.

Of his own politics, he once said: “I used to vote left. Today, I think that the ideologies of the 20th century are no longer adequate.”

Photo: AFP

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Italy plans to stop ‘revolving door’ between judges and politicians

Italian lawmakers on Tuesday advanced a planned reform aimed at stopping the 'revolving door' between justice and government, as part of wider changes to the country's creaking judicial system.

Italy plans to stop 'revolving door' between judges and politicians

The proposed reform, which still has to be approved by the Italian Senate in the coming weeks, imposes significant limitations on the number of magistrates, prosecutors and judges looking to go into politics – a frequent move in Italy.

Under the submitted changes, a magistrate wishing to stand for election, whether national, regional or local, will not be able to do so in the region where they have worked over the previous three years.

At the end of their mandate, magistrates who have held elective positions will not be able to return to the judiciary – they will be moved to non-jurisdictional posts at, for example, the Court of Auditors or the Supreme Court of Cassation, according to local media reports.

Furthermore, magistrates who have applied for elective positions but have not been successful for at least three years will no longer be able to work in the region where they ran for office. 

The reform is part of a wider programme of changes to Italy’s tortuous judicial system. This is required by the European Commission to unlock billions of euros in the form of post-pandemic recovery funds.

Public perception of the independence of Italian courts and judges is among the worst in Europe, according to the EU’s justice scoreboard.