Political greenhorns in Europe

Italian academic goes from 'nobody' to premier position

Italy's new Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte at a ceremony yesterday marking the country's Republic Day.
Italy's new Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte at a ceremony yesterday marking the country's Republic Day.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

New leaders have grabbed the reins of power in Italy and Spain following a week of political drama. Italians now have a novice politician for prime minister in the form of lawyer Giuseppe Conte, while over in Spain, Socialist leader Pedro Sanchez was sworn in yesterday as Prime Minister after a parliamentary revolt.

ROME • Dubbed "Mr Nobody", political novice Giuseppe Conte now finds himself at the helm of one of the euro zone's largest economies, running a Cabinet of far-right and anti-establishment ministers.

The 53-year-old little-known academic was sworn in as Italy's 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 from the anti-establishment Five Star Movement 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.

Mr Conte had initially 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 Five Star.

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

Yesterday, Mr Conte was to stand alongside Mr Mattarella for national day celebrations in Rome before jetting off to the Group of Seven meeting in Canada.

Born in 1964 in the tiny village of Volturara Appula in the southern region of Puglia, Mr Conte has been quoted by the media as saying: "I used to vote left. Today, I think that the ideologies of the 20th century are no longer adequate."

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

A friend has told state broadcaster Radio 1 that Mr Conte is "very religious".

Analysts say Mr Conte will serve at the command of the leaders of the two groups forming the new Cabinet, Mr Di Maio and the anti-immigrant League's Matteo Salvini.

The Italian press, meanwhile, has raised concerns over Mr Conte's credibility as Premier on the international scene. Left-wing newspaper La Repubblica asks "what authority will he have when he goes to meet (German Chancellor) Angela Merkel and (French President) Emmanuel Macron?"

Mr Di Maio had initially presented Mr Conte as part of the Five Star team of ministers ahead of the March 4 general election. That was the general public's first glimpse of the discreet lawyer. He stayed out of sight in the coalition talks to form an alliance after an inconclusive election.

Mr Conte is reportedly separated from his wife, with whom he has a 10-year-old son. Before appointed as Prime Minister, 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: New York University (NYU) and the Sorbonne's law school said they had no record of him as a student or faculty member.

NYU said Mr Conte was granted permission to do research in its law library between 2008 and 2014. Cambridge University declined to give details about Mr Conte.

Another of the institutions where he claimed to have "furthered his juridical studies" is Vienna's Internationales Kulturinstitut - a language school.

Mr Conte has not spoken out publicly about the CV affair, but Mr Di Maio and Mr Salvini have staunchly defended him, and when the chance of forming an alliance reappeared, the pair had no hesitation in putting their man forward again.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 03, 2018, with the headline 'Italian academic goes from 'nobody' to premier position'. Print Edition | Subscribe