Italy’s soft-spoken Conte raises his voice, wins new mandate

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Designate premier Giuseppe Conte leaves after a meeting with President Sergio Mattarella at Rome’s Quirinale presidential palace, Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019. Italy’s president has given the recently resigned premier, Giuseppe Conte, a fresh mandate to see if he can cobble together a new government backed by the populist 5-Star Movement and center-left Democrats. (AP Photo/ Andrew Medichini)

ROME (AP) — Once viewed as a figurehead who took orders from his deputies, Italy’s premier-designate Giuseppe Conte has raised his profile amid the country’s sudden political crisis, emerging as Italy’s best bet to avoid early elections and derail right-wing leader Matteo Salvini’s bid to clinch the helm of government.

Days after handing in his resignation, the 55-year-old law professor, who emerged from anonymity a year ago to head a populist coalition forged by the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement and Salvini’s right-wing League party, has surprisingly won a fresh mandate.

On Thursday, Italian President Sergio Mattarella asked Conte to explore an alternative coalition of two bitter political rivals — the 5-Stars and the center-left Democratic Party — with the aim of avoiding a snap election as Italy faces domestic and international instability.

Conte was forced to resign earlier this month after Salvini abruptly pulled the plug on his shaky government in a bid to force new elections he was convinced the League would win. It was a risky gamble that ended up backfiring when the 5-Stars joined forces with the opposition Democrats.

Conte is seen as an ally of the 5-Stars, even though he had no party affiliation when he became premier in June 2018. He kept a relatively low profile throughout his 14-month mandate, but before handing in his resignation on Aug. 20, he blasted Salvini for forcing his government to collapse.

In a speech before the Italian Senate, Conte accused Salvini of putting Italy at risk during a delicate political phase in order to purse his own “personal interests” and capitalize on his rising popularity as he implemented an anti-migrant agenda in his role as the country’s powerful interior minister that included blocking Italy’s ports to rescue ships carrying migrants.

During much of his time at the helm of government, Conte had acted as a mediator between his warring coalition partners, Salvini and 5-Stars’ leader Luigi Di Maio. Then the lawyer-turned-politician started showing growing confidence and winning international backing during key summits.

“He started feeling at ease with his European and global partners and was increasingly seen as an anchor amid the stormy Italian politics, which seemed completely out of control,” said Massimiliano Panarari, a political analyst and professor at Rome’s LUISS university.

Salvini had easily overshadowed Di Maio, hammering home a tough “law-and-order” message against migrants, widely perceived as a threat by many Italian voters in the poorer south of Italy. He also appealed to the richer north and its small- and medium-sized businesses with an economic agenda that included lower taxes, turning the League — once a regional party — into a powerful national force even as the 5-Star’s backing plummeted.

Now, Conte — known for his soft-spoken approach and passion for pocket handkerchiefs and brightly colored ties — has grabbed the chance to emerge out of Salvini’s shadow, replacing Di Maio as the real leader of the struggling 5-Stars.

Conte’s new role was quickly embraced by European Union leaders, worried that a possible ascent to power by euroskeptic Salvini would push Italy on a collision course with Brussels over key policies, including a critical budget law that Italy has to submit to the European Commission by mid-October and approve by the end of the year.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron warmly greeted Conte at the Group of Seven summit last weekend and he even won a public endorsement from U.S. President Donald Trump on Twitter. Trump called him “a very talented man who will hopefully remain Prime Minister” in a tweet that went viral after Trump misspelled Conte’s first name as “Giuseppi.”

None of that obscures the fact that Conte faces an uphill battle in cobbling together a coalition between two parties that only days ago were bitter enemies with rival political agendas.

In his acceptance speech on Thursday, Conte said he wanted to win back lost time “to allow Italy, a founding member of the EU, to rise again as a protagonist” and transform this moment of crisis into an opportunity.

“He’s a chameleon and he used this unique window of opportunity to gain his own political space, filling the vacuum left by the other leaders,” political analyst Panarari said. “It remains to be seen if he will succeed in this bold move and how long his fragile coalition would be able to survive.”

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