Giuseppe Conte has emerged as the unlikely hero of the recent political crisis
Giuseppe Conte has emerged as the unlikely hero of the recent political crisis. Having been dethroned by Salvini with an unprovoked vote of no-confidence, which had for aim to bring the country to fresh elections, he cut out a remarkably stately figure during his resignation. In one of the most remarkable moments of Italian parliamentary politics, he gave a resounding speech which summarized in crisp detail the causes that led to the crisis and shed light on how he navigated the past 15 turbulent months of government. Among other things, he put the blame squarely on the figure of Salvini who came much diminished as a result of failing to achieve his subversive coup and having overplayed his own hand.
Conte, who until last year was a little known academic and lawyer, came out as the unlikely choice of the League and Five Star Movement to helm the fractious populist coalition that leads — or rather, led — Italy. While characterized as a secondary and weak figure in government, greatly upstaged by the voluble figure of Salvini, there was little hope in his ability of implementing the tortuous political programme proposed by the populist alliance. Deemed likely to be condemned as one of the many weak care-taker prime ministers that are a fixture in Italian politics, Conte managed to provide some decorum to the office and the government he presided. His demeanor at global forums stood in stark contrast to some of the histrionics seen in the politics of his homeland. His ability to talk with confidence to the big and powerful such as Merkel showed that Italy was still committed to the values of European integration regardless of what the coalition partners might have said in the past. His manner and style could not have been more different than Salvini’s, including in how they both proclaimed their faith in public.
So, it may now seem that Italy has found its anti-Salvini in the figure of the lawyer from the province of Foggia. Indeed, because for reasons that might have escaped many commentators, the former prime minister has also secured the trust and admiration of large swathes of the Italian population, with his approval rating soaring above the 60 percent mark which is miles away from both Salvini and vice-premier Di Maio’s levels of support. This support makes him one of the most popular politicians in Italy, which in part also derives from supporters from both the League and the Democratic Party.
Consequently, it might not be inconceivable that Italy has found in the sober lawyer the perfect antidote to right-wing populism and can bring some healing to the polarized environment that pervades in the country. We should therefore not be surprised at the Five Star Movement’s insistence in making him prime minister again, this is because another Conte government could come to aid the beleaguered electoral fortunes of the Movement and help them recover lost voters. With a liked figure such as Conte, the Movement could self-preserve as one of the mainstay political forces in Italy and place itself at the political center. The Movement would then seize the chance by becoming the party of Conte and ingratiate itself once more with the public.
There is another reason why the Movement might want to insist in a second Conte government, and that is because unless new elections are held, the next governing coalition would come about through a pact between the Five Stars and their erstwhile Democratic Party. Such a coalition would not only be necessary to stave off the challenge from the League but also to produce a stable government that would be able to push a budget at the end of the year and respect European budget rules. Any coalition with the Democratic Party, a party where the figure of Renzi still plays an influential role, would be bitter pill to swallow for much of the Movement’s electorate, having spent years casting aspersions on the Democratic Party’s establishment. Yet it might seem that this alliance is being increasingly mooted by the former archnemesis, Beppe Grillo and Renzi.
Whatever might be the political calculations behind this alliance, these cannot be known for certain. But a second Conte government could be the instrument through which the Five Star Movement will make its pact with the Dems digestible to its base. What calculation has the Democratic Party made? One can speculate that there might be many at once, not least the potential desire of Renzi to create his own party and use the second Conte government to bide his time and help him work on his own political ambitions. What is certain is that Italy has not seen the last of its palace coups, and more importantly, the theatrics in parliament will go on.