Conte's Chameleon Act Gives Him Staying Power in Italian Crisis

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(Bloomberg) -- There is a mystery that hangs over Giuseppe Conte, of how an unassuming professor few expected to last became a political survivor and, at the height of the Covid pandemic, had more power than any Italian leader since Benito Mussolini.

It’s all the more intriguing when you consider he has no power base of his own and looked out of his depth at key moments of the crisis. And yet, as he gives Italians more freedoms for the summer after more than two months of lockdown, the prime minister is the most popular politician in the country, wielding emergency powers that lawmakers never even got to vote on.

“I have been accused of being a dictator, paternalist, illiberal,” he told reporters on Saturday evening. “It seems to me that when this government needs to show its face and take responsibility, it has never failed.”

Conte's Chameleon Act Gives Him Staying Power in Italian Crisis

The thing that keeps coming up in conversations with government officials and politicians of all stripes is a certain chameleon-like quality that has enabled the so-called “lawyer of the people” to front a euroskeptic coalition and then to keep the country in line as a figure of the Italian establishment. What’s more, he is someone the European Union has realised it can reason with.

“Conte was born as a compromise but he’s managed to become indispensable,” said Roberto D’Alimonte, who teaches politics at Rome’s Luiss University. “That’s pretty exceptional for a prime minister without a party of his own.”

He’s never won a national vote, but Conte has established solid relationships with both U.S. President Donald Trump and Germany’s Angela Merkel and outlived his early political sponsors to become an unexpected source of stability for both Italy and the EU as his country is battered by the coronavirus. There’s no general election due until 2023, though Italian governments are often short-lived and Conte’s second coalition has been shaky since it came together last year. 

The 55-year-old’s high-wire act in charge of Europe’s fourth-biggest economy looked like it might have run its course toward the end of April, when stir-crazy Italians saw a pale and exhausted prime minister live on television struggling to explain why he still had to keep many things shut down. His government’s plan for another 55 billion euros ($60 billion) of spending to keep companies and families afloat also seemed to take an age to get approved by a squabbling cabinet.

Conte's Chameleon Act Gives Him Staying Power in Italian Crisis

Yet here he is. He’s taken some knocks but has come out the other side.

“We are taking a calculated risk, aware that the contagion curve could rise again,” he said, in the courtyard of his official Rome residence. “We are taking this risk and we have to accept it, otherwise we could not restart. We cannot wait for a vaccine.”

Conte, who will address the Rome parliament on Thursday on the virus emergency, appealed to Italians in an open letter published by newspaper Leggo on Monday to respect health and safety rules as they edge back toward some kind of normalcy. He urged them to wear protective masks on public transport as well as in shops and other closed spaces, and respect one-meter social distancing.

The prime minister’s unexpected political career has been a series of calculated risks.

Parachuted into office from Florence University law faculty in 2018, he became the unlikely choice to head a coalition of populists who simply could not agree on who should lead and wanted someone they could control. Instead, he’s outlasted them all and kept the peace with the EU as Brexit was unfurling.

There were revealing glimpses of steel at the outset.

As Matteo Salvini’s anti-immigration League and Luigi di Maio’s anti-establishment Five Star Movement put the finishing touches to their coalition in a meeting at the parliament in Rome, party officials were somewhat surprised to see the prime minister-elect acting as if he was really running the show, according to one person who was present.

As each cabinet nominee was read out, Conte smacked the palm of his right hand on the desk to signal his agreement.

The due diligence Five Star and the League had done on Conte before he was plucked from academic obscurity suggested he was the type of character who would ultimately do as he was told. So they put his attitude that day down to the clumsiness of a novice.

Conte's Chameleon Act Gives Him Staying Power in Italian Crisis

If only they had thought of sounding out Conte’s boss in Florence. “I knew Giuseppe as a mild, calm character,” recalled Patrizia Giunti, who was head of the law faculty at the time. “But if he cared about something, he would push for it.”

From the start, Conte made commitments to European integration that riled his political backers and cut his coalition partners out of negotiations over economic policy, according to the League’s euroskeptic lawmaker Claudio Borghi, head of the lower house’s budget committee.

During the fall of 2018, Salvini and Di Maio courted a confrontation with the EU by threatening to breach its fiscal rules. Conte persuaded them to trim their spending enough to engineer a settlement.

Officials from both parties said they were taken aback. “We soon found out Conte had his own agenda,” Borghi said in an interview.

The danger for Conte, and for his EU partners, is that he may not be able to keep a lid on Italian euroskepticism forever. Public opposition to the EU has been growing for years and it increased sharply during the initial weeks of the Covid crisis because Italians felt abandoned by their neighbors. If the government did fall, Salvini, who threatened to pull the country out of the EU in March, would start as favorite to win. 

For now though, Conte has strengthened his grip.

Salvini took the League into opposition in the summer of 2019 after Conte thwarted his attempt to take over as premier and Di Maio clings on as foreign minister despite being pushed aside as Five Star leader. At the G-7 summit in the posh French sea resort of Biarritz, Conte appeared to be a lame duck.

Conte's Chameleon Act Gives Him Staying Power in Italian Crisis

Instead, he discovered he had friends in high places. Trump praised him as a “a very talented man” and took an unusual step of supporting Conte even when Salvini, who styled himself unashamedly himself on Trump with an “Italy First” slogan, had made a clear bid for power.

Di Maio himself is at a loss to explain why the premier is so popular within Five Star ranks, according to two people familiar with his thinking. Polls show Conte is Italy’s favorite politician — though the League is still the party with most support.

He’s still embroiled in the most desperate battle to keep Italy afloat, with the lockdown triggering the worst recessions since World War II. He’s struggling to get the money from his first stimulus package through the state bureaucracy to the people who need it and his chaotic reopening plan has left business owners tearing their hair out.

“It’s unbelievable that after two months we still don’t have clear guidelines,” Alessandro Cavo, a restaurant owner in the old town of Genoa, said in a phone interview. “If the government’s aim is to destroy the restaurant business, we can definitely say ‘well done.’”

But he has the support of his EU colleagues, who learned that they can rely on him during his almost two years in office. Many European leaders had minimal expectations for his premiership and they respect the way he’s prevented factions in his governments from doing too much damage at a European level, according to a Brussels-based diplomat.

Conte's Chameleon Act Gives Him Staying Power in Italian Crisis

At summit meetings in Brussels he’s chatted into the early hours over beers with Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron. The German chancellor appreciates his charm while noting his lack of experience, according to a German official. At Davos, he asked for five minutes of her time over an espresso. “Certainly, that would be fantastic. A coffee is better if an Italian asks for it,” she replied.

She has been surprised by how aggressively he lobbied for joint euro-area debt issuance to fund Italy’s recovery, but she also realizes he is under a great deal of domestic pressure, said the official.

For those paying attention, that mix of flattery and grit has been the secret of Conte’s success.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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