The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Giuseppe Conte, a political novice, is on the verge of becoming Italy’s prime minister

Giuseppe Conte is likely to become the next prime minister of Italy.
Giuseppe Conte is likely to become the next prime minister of Italy. (Alessandra Tarantino/AP)
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ROME — Giuseppe Conte is a lawyer with an established academic reputation but a name virtually unknown in Italian politics. Now, he is on the verge of becoming this country’s leader.

Italy has been waiting for a new government since March elections failed to produce a clear-cut winner. On Monday, the two populist parties that have been negotiating to end the political deadlock selected Conte as their preferred prime minister.

The pick places a political novice at the forefront as Italy prepares to toughen its stance on migration and push back against the European Union.

“I am very proud of this name,” said Luigi Di Maio, head of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement. He called Conte a “self-made man” who represents a “synthesis” between his party and its partner, the far-right League. Di Maio added that Italy was nearing a “historic moment.”

The prime minister selection, like the agreement between the Five Star Movement and the League, faces several steps before it can become final. The new government and its leader must receive approval from the Italian president, Sergio Mattarella. Conte must also win a vote of confidence from parliament.

Both Di Maio and League leader Matteo Salvini had sought the position of premier, and their parties had been critical in the past of a common Italian practice: handing power to unelected technocrats after backroom deals. But they defended the selection of Conte, calling him the proxy for two parties that had won the voters’ support.

Giovanni Orsina, the deputy director of the LUISS School of Government in Rome, said the selection of a relatively unknown premier was a way to prevent the League or the Five Star Movement from gaining an upper hand in the government.

“I think he’s the end result of these absolutely bizarre circumstances: two strong and very visible leaders vetoing each other,” Orsina said. “It’s like an unprecedented verdict: How will the jury react? Who knows. We don’t know one of the most important pieces on the board.”

Conte, 53, teaches law at the University of Florence and has also spent time at U.S. schools, including Yale and New York University.

He has had only fleeting exposure to the political spotlight — most notably in the days before Italy’s March 4 election, when Di Maio offered his name as a potential minister. Conte spoke then about cracking down on corruption and streamlining Italy’s “jumbled” laws.

According to ANSA, Italy’s main wire agency, Di Maio had hired Conte as his personal lawyer and asked him to write the party’s campaign platform on justice. A Five Star party spokesman later disputed ANSA’s reporting, saying that Conte had not served as Di Maio’s attorney and that Conte had been uninvolved in the campaign platform. Instead, the spokesman said, Conte helped in recent weeks to draft the agreement between the two parties on forming a government.

Still, he was obscure enough that major Italian papers over the weekend — when the decision was rumored — and on Monday were publishing get-to-know-you bios.

Conte’s boss at the University of Florence, Patrizia Giunti, said Monday in a phone interview that Conte earned tenure status 10 years ago and paid attention to corporate behavior and social responsibility. She called him friendly and generous, but said she had never talked to him about his political views.

“He’s a man of law,” she said. “He’s let me know that he could be willing” to serve.

Italian media have speculated that both Di Maio and Salvini could land cabinet positions — with Salvini leading the interior ministry, where he could help carry out his immigration-related goals, including a more rapid deportation of migrants and a registry for Muslim clerics in the country.

The Five Star Movement and the League, in negotiating how to form a government, have drawn up a platform that Salvini says “puts Italy at the center — Italians first.” The platform includes a call to drop sanctions against Russia and launch spending programs and tax cuts aimed at boosting Italy’s sluggish growth.

However, those steps have worried some Western European leaders and caused a backlash from investors who think Italy’s government — among the most indebted in Europe — should prioritize fiscal restraint. On Monday, Italy’s cost of borrowing hit its highest level of the year.

“The traditional political class is basically torn apart completely in Italy,” said Josef Janning, head of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “The state is in a state of mess, and now it’s passed into the hands of those who have little respect” for norms.

Clarification: A previous version of this story included a reference to a Twitter account held by a user professing to be Giuseppe Conte. The Post has been unable to confirm the identity of the account holder.

Harlan reported from Washington.

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