Giuseppe Conte: how Italy’s prime minister survived the collapse of his own government

Conte: free to spread on to two chairs now. EPA/ Ettore Ferrari

If the formation of his second government is, as expected, successful, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte will have completed a manoeuvre which is unprecedented in the history of the Italian Republic. He will stay on as prime minister for a second spell in office, at the head of a completely different governing majority.

This strange situation has come about after the collapse of the populist government that came to power in May 2018, bringing together the Five Star Movement and the League. When Matteo Salvini, leader of the League, pulled the plug on this “yellow-green” coalition, it had looked like there would be an early election. That was an enticing prospect for Salvini since polls suggest his party would emerge victorious, making it possible for him to form a government of the far right with the smaller Brothers of Italy party.

Conte with his unhappy deputies – Matteo Salvini and Luigi di Maio. EPA

But, for the same reason, the Five Star Movement and the main party of opposition, the Democrats, were at pains to stop Salvini’s plans. Under the oversight of Conte, they began talks to form an alternative government. A “yellow-red” (Five Star-Democrat) coalition was, in principle, agreed with Conte at its head, and talks are now proceeding over the government’s programme and the distribution of ministries. This has happened through force of circumstance and the relative weakness of the two parties. Both are internally divided but are aware that a general election could spell disaster for them. Working together seemed the best if not only option to stop Salvini.

Same man, different prime minister

As a result, we find Conte exiting one door with a populist right-leaning government behind him and immediately reappearing through another at the head of a left-leaning alternative.

He has, in the process, undergone a transformation. He was seen as little more than a puppet prime minister during the previous administration, charged with the impossible task of publicly presenting a united government despite the constant bickering between the two parties. Now, however, Conte is exploiting the new situation and presenting himself as a statesman, both sitting above the political fray and, at the same time, able to form a government that will have a positive reform agenda.

Listening to the way he describes his ambitions for a “government with a sense of innovation” with a clear “euro-Atlantic” anchoring and loyalty to the principles of the Italian constitution, it is easy to forget that he was, only a few weeks ago, the prime minister of a populist government regularly accused of undermining precisely these fundamentals.

The markets have responded well to the manoeuvre, as have international politicians. US President Donald Trump, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Commission President Ursula von Leyden have all expressed their hope that Conte will succeed.

Uncomfortable partners

Conte’s new leverage is already clear in the way in which he is forming his new government. With his first government he was little more than a mediator between two parties carving up the spoils. This time round he has made clear his intention to lead a government of his own making, with the Conte stamp clearly emblazoned on it. This could mean several ministries being allocated to individuals who are not party politicians.

The two parties don’t have a strong enough prospective electoral position to resist. That could be a problem as Conte’s new found leverage could have damaging consequences for both. His putative independence from the main party of the outgoing government threatens to “normalise” the image of the Five Star Movement in a way that might ultimately harm its relationship with its supporters.

The party’s brand was founded on the idea that it is totally different from the mainstream. It is supposed to be an anti-establishment, anti-politics movement – something many of its members have not forgotten – yet here it is forming a government with a mainstream party and squabbling over ministries, just like any other. And it is the party members who will, through the party’s internet platform Rousseau, vote on whether the the party should enter a “Conte 2” government.

For the the Democrats, Conte’s attempt to play statesman is a travesty. They see him as an appointee of the Five Star Movement and themselves as only willing to enter government for the good of the nation. Many party members will not have forgotten Nicola Zingaretti, the Democrats leader, promising just six months ago that he would never form a coalition with Five Star. It has been the work of Sisyphus to bring the party around to the idea at all, so entering such a coalition must be seen to be on the Democrats’ terms – or not at all.

Democratic Nicola Zingaretti agrees to a coalition. EPA

What is now being played out is much more than just the formation of a new government, but the testing of new political dynamics which could reshape Italian party politics. Salvini’s premature ending of Italy’s populist coalition has not only left him sidelined and presented the Democrats with an unexpected opportunity to govern, but also unleashed a new and unexpected power player in Italian politics: Giuseppe Conte, Italy’s man of the moment – at least for the moment.