Italy Needed a Government. It Got a Circus.
Rome has a prime minister with no power — and a slate of new constitutional, diplomatic, and economic crises.
Before Italian President Sergio Mattarella gave the mandate to lead a populist government to Giuseppe Conte, who was unknown to most Italians until a few days prior, he had to be sure of two things. Were Luigi Di Maio and Matteo Salvini, the respective leaders of the anti-establishment parties Five Star Movement and the League, certain of their candidate choice? And would they consider anyone else? Their answers: Of course we are, and never.
Mattarella and Conte’s meeting at the Palazzo del Quirinale lasted for nearly two hours, much longer than previous meetings of the sort. The meeting gave Mattarella the opportunity to vet the candidate before conferring a mandate to form a government — which Mattarella ultimately did. It was the vertiginous height of an almost three-month-long process. Eighty days had elapsed since the March 4 general elections, making this one of the longest post-election periods without a government in the history of Italy’s Republic.
In an email to Foreign Policy, Democratic Member of Parliament Andrea Romano said that Conte’s selection, in some ways, marked a return to late 20th-century Italian politics: “It was typical of the so-called First Republic, at least until the end of the ’70s, that the steering of the government was entrusted to weak figures, while the real political leaders were heads of parties or else they occupied marginal roles in the government.”
But even as Conte is a callback to an era when prime ministers were essentially spokesmen in a bipolar political system, his selection is also unprecedented. He is a politically inexperienced choice in an avowedly populist coalition that has never governed before, at a time when the country is on the precipice of economic and diplomatic crisis. Nobody knows whether Conte will ultimately take office — and if he does, whether he will actually be in charge.
The formation of the “yellow-green” coalition between the Five Star Movement and the League was anything but predictable. After Five Star emerged as the party with the most votes nationwide, and the League became the biggest party in the center-right coalition led by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, it was unclear what would happen next. The Democrats, who still have a strong parliamentary presence, refused to work with the winners. The weakened Berlusconi, though an outspoken critic of the Five Star Movement, could do little else but grumble behind Salvini. It became increasingly clear that the Five Star and League leaders would either have to resolve their political and personal differences or go back to the polls.
Mattarella had been patient for months while leading a series of mediations between Di Maio and Salvini. The deadlocks were becoming exhausting, however, and Mattarella gave the party heads an ultimatum in early May: Get it together quickly or continue negotiations under a nonpartisan caretaker government. Di Maio and Salvini refused to allow the other to become premier, but their desire to govern had a slight edge over anything else.
Practically no one had heard of Conte, a lawyer in private practice and a law professor at the University of Florence, before he was named premier-delegate. Conte had ties to the Five Star Movement as Di Maio’s lawyer and a draftsman of the party manifesto’s section on justice. Until recently, he had been pegged as a possible public administration minister, whose responsibility would involve repealing many of the laws that Di Maio opposes and scaling down governmental bureaucracy.
Controversy arose almost as soon as his name was mentioned for the position of prime minister. Italian and U.S. news sources reported uncertainties surrounding Conte’s resume, a sprawling and sometimes confusing document that inflated details about his time at various American and European universities. He was also noted for his legal advocacy for parents who wanted to use a discredited stem cell treatment called the Stamina method to cure their daughter. The most recent controversy, uncovered by the Milan-based daily Libero, shows that Conte failed to pay more than 50,000 euros in taxes in the period from 1997 to 2008. He finally paid off his debts in 2011.
The lead-up to Mattarella’s verdict on Conte’s suitability prompted warnings to the president from the parties in the prospective coalition. In a polemical Facebook post, Five Star deputy Alessandro Di Battista wrote, “Mattarella swore loyalty to the Republic, or rather to the people to whom he owes his sovereignty. […] The president isn’t a notary for political parties, but he also isn’t the defense attorney for those opposed to change.” This amounted to a subtle, but unmistakable challenge to Italy’s Constitution, and the role it designates for the president — namely, to regulate, at his own discretion, the interactions of political actors and ensure that politics are conducted without threatening national integration. Mattarella hardly needed reminding that he is enmeshed in a highly unpredictable political system. But he also knows that Italy is being watched closely by the European Commission, European Central Bank, and populist movements around the world. Mattarella’s position, as defined by the Constitution, has always been juridical, ceremonial, and diplomatic — Five Star figures like Di Battista are now insisting he privilege the latter factor over the others.
The pressure campaign may have been successful in only the narrowest sense. Even as Mattarella ultimately approved Conte, his faith in him seems tepid, at best. The doubts raised about Conte’s moral fiber seem to have weighed on his mind, but the more pressing issue is Mattarella’s respect for constitutional procedure. When asked by Italian reporters whether the president would veto any of the proposed ministers, the presidential office responded, “Today’s focus isn’t the presumed vetoes but, on the contrary, the inadmissibility of diktats as it concerns the prime minister, the president, and their constitutionally protected responsibilities.”
This was a clear reference to the pressures that Di Maio and Salvini are placing on Conte to support ministers of their choosing, an effort that possibly violates the premier’s legally enshrined autonomy. Conte is expected to present a list of Cabinet ministers to Mattarella for approval in the next day or so, and the names that have been circulating in the media lean heavily on Five Star and League loyalists. While Salvini looks to become interior minister, Di Maio aims to create a “super-ministry” that combines Economic Development and Labor.
So far, the primary candidate for finance minister is rumored to be Paolo Savona, a well-known economist and former general director of Confindustria who also served in Carlo Azeglio Ciampi’s Cabinet. Savona recently resigned as president and chairman of Euklid Ltd., a London-based financial technology startup, hinting that he might have a role to play in the Italian government. Savona is loudly opposed to the euro, having called it “a German cage.” Jan Zielonka, author of Counter-Revolution: Liberal Europe in Retreat, says that “Savona, like [former Greek finance minister Yanis] Varoufakis, will try to get a better deal from the EU, but unlike Varoufakis he knows what it takes to leave the eurozone.”
That may dim his prospects for taking office. Many observers, in and outside of Italy, have long doubted the country would ever actually leave the eurozone. “Doing so requires accepting short-term costs and risks for long-term gains, and that is something politicians very rarely do,” says Andrew Moravcsik, director of the European Union Program at Princeton University. But that is another way of saying that the main impediment is political will — which the new coalition parties seem not to lack. If Savona is a credible threat to carry out an exit from the eurozone — as judged by the response of financial markets to the rumors of his appointment — he may not meet Mattarella’s approval. That helps explain a report from La Stampa that one possible alternative to Savona is Luigi Zingales, a more moderate finance professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.
Already, the manner of Conte’s appointment is weakening the integrity of his new office — both as a result of Mattarella’s especially intense scrutiny of him and his Cabinet choices, and Conte’s own uncertain relationship to the parties that comprise the government he will nominally be leading. Di Maio and Salvini had already drafted a government agenda even before identifying Conte as their candidate, which has only fed suspicions that Conte, despite his protests to the contrary, is something of a blank slate who may more or less be molded to Di Maio and Salvini’s wills.
Riccardo Alcaro, head of the Global Actors Program at the Istituto Affari Internazionali, believes Di Maio and Salvini see Conte as little more than an executor of their agendas. “He seems pretty replaceable, so he’s likely to be put in the unenviable position of having to ‘serve’ two masters, who in addition will engage in constant competition for influence on government policies and public support. So we have all conditions here for Conte to be one of the weakest PMs in Italy’s recent history.”
What remains to be seen is whether the yellow-green coalition can successfully put on a unified front. Di Maio has called the Five Star Movement a “post-ideological” party. The coalition is opposed to trasformismo (roughly, “transformism”), which describes a set of tactics used to create a large centrist majority in government. The coalition’s apparent opposition to opportunism and party-hopping suggests that one of their main tenets is a commitment to “hold the line.” Di Maio and Salvini’s insistence on Conte as the one and only compromise candidate seems to reflect something like an ideological stubbornness.
A report published by the Istituto Cattaneo, a research foundation based in Bologna, calls the coalition’s planned policies “social-securitarian.” The government agenda, the report claims, primarily reflects the welfare-oriented politics of Five Star: pension law reform, universal minimum income, more stringent environmental regulations and health regulations on baby products, etc. Less emphasized but still notable are the League’s security goals, which include the closure of nomadic camps in Italy, expansion of the national police force, plans to review migrant rescue missions at sea, renegotiation of the Dublin Regulation that governs migration to the European Union, and the construction of additional detention centers for migrants. The coalition agenda, insofar as one exists, is perhaps less surprising than the very nature of the coalition.
Whether the coalition can maintain support among Italians is another question. Sentiments between Salvini and the rest of the center-right he campaigned with in the election have become chilly. When Salvini tried bringing Giorgia Meloni, the leader of the Brothers of Italy, into the fold of the new government, she declined the offer. “He’s the only general I know who surrendered to the enemy as soon as he won the war,” she told Italian reporters. Berlusconi, for his part, thinks Salvini will ultimately be obliged to request support from his previous allies on the center-right.
Of course, that assumes Salvini’s goal, and the goal of his new government, is to win elections, rather than create fundamental change for Italy by any means necessary. As Salvini himself once said in a statement that encapsulates the present moment’s precarity, he is ready “to go into government, to the voting booth, [or] to the barricades.”