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Leaders Revealed by Covid-19: The Curious Giuseppe Conte

Leaders Revealed by Covid-19: The Curious Giuseppe Conte
 Marc Lazar
Senior Fellow - Italy, Democracy and Populism

What hasn’t already been said of the major, global and ongoing crisis that has hit the world since Covid-19 started spreading across the globe? The crisis is under heightened scrutiny, legitimately so, in all its dimensions, be they sanitary, economic, political, social, geopolitical, anthropological, philosophical or even geo-economic.

Further reflection in all these areas is needed. The summer break nevertheless offers an opportunity to address an aspect largely neglected so far: the psychological effect of the crisis on politicians. The subject is vast. It can be narrowed down by zooming in on a few leaders whose image has been profoundly altered by the crisis. As was the case with our previous series on neo-authoritarians or on resilient democracies, our selection of "political leaders revealed by Covid-19" is arbitrary. The reader will further see that we have selected figures who are in fact mostly already known, even famous. Yet, their destiny has undoubtedly been altered as a result of the pandemic.

To what extent and for how long? We ask this question in this first portrait proposed here of the Italian President of the Council of Ministers, Giuseppe Conte, written by one of Italy's most brilliant connoisseurs, Professor Marc Lazar.

We are once again delighted to benefit from David Martin's talent to illustrate the caricatures dotted throughout this new series of portraits.

Michel Duclos, Special Advisor on Geopolitics, Editor in Chief of this series


Giuseppe Conte has had a curious journey, certainly because of his political choices, but also because of his personality. Virtually unknown to the general public, Giuseppe Conte came to the forefront after the March 2018 elections, which were marked by electoral strides for both Luigi Di Maio's Five Star Movement and Matteo Salvini's Lega Nord. He became President of the Council of Ministers of a government dominated by these two populist parties. Frequently described by journalists as a bland character lacking a strong personality, he was seen as a small notary executing a "governmental contract" in which he didn’t have a say. European capitals viewed this new government with concern, suspicious of this man who, on May 23, 2018, did not hesitate to claim himself "the defender of the Italian people". Nevertheless, a year later, Giuseppe Conte ensured himself a second term. This time, a different coalition took shape, still including the Five Star Movement, but also the center-left Democratic Party, Italia viva by Matteo Renzi and LeU (Free and Equal), a party to the left of the Democratic Party. Matteo Salvini's Lega is pushed into opposition. This governmental change was not welcomed by the Italian people. The Covid-19 crisis, hitting Italy hard, came to turn the tables and upset the political status quo, once again. This time around, Giuseppe Conte has established himself as the man of the hour, has received support from most of his European counterparts and has reached record levels of popularity. It has gotten to the point where his parliamentary allies have been tempted to remove him and where the opposition is focusing all of its blows on him. How can we, under these conditions, understand and interpret the journey and personal transformation of Giuseppe Conte? Would he, by himself, have become the strong man of Italy, called to a great political destiny?

He became President of the Council of Ministers, or Prime Minister, on June 1, 2018. His task proved to be a particularly arduous one, with no party or elected officials to rely on.

Giuseppe Conte, born on August 8, 1964 in the province of Foggia in Puglia, is a lawyer and an academic. A Catholic, he is close to Beppe Grillo's Five Star Movement, though he is not officially a member. After a first unsuccessful attempt, he became President of the Council of Ministers, or Prime Minister, on June 1, 2018. His task proved to be a particularly arduous one, with no party or elected officials to rely on, flanked by an under-secretary at the Presidency of the Council, Giancarlo Giorgetti, a member of Lega, a man of experience but also someone close to Matteo Salvini.

Moreover, the two Vice-Presidents of the Council, Matteo Salvini, Minister of the Interior, and Luigi Di Maio, Minister of Labour and Economic Development, were in stiff competition. Salvini was quickly gaining the upper hand over the latter, drawing all the light to himself and overshadowing Giuseppe Conte, who nevertheless exercised the power conferred by his office in every possible, albeit small, way he could. He took up the contradictory program of the two parties, including the fight against illegal immigration, citizenship income, flat tax, revision of the pension reform of Mario Monti's government to authorize early retirement, pro-Russian foreign policy, etc. In his inaugural speech on June 5, 2018, he explained his understanding of populism as an ability "to listen to the needs of the people" and embraced being anti-system, if it meant wanting to "introduce a new system that removes old privileges and entrenched power dynamics". At the same time, he knew how to sing a different tune, for example regarding the European Union, of which he repeatedly declared himself extremely supportive. In fact, Conte acted as an intermediary, relying on two of his "technical" ministers, that of the Economy and that of Foreign Affairs, as he strived to establish a relationship of trust with the President of the Republic, Sergio Mattarella. That meant being an intermediary between Lega Nord and the Five Star Movement's criticisms of the European Union and Brussels. An intermediary also between Matteo Salvini and Luigi Di Maio’s anti-German and anti-French stances on the one hand, and, on the other, Berlin and Paris, especially during the open diplomatic crisis between Italy and France in February 2019, triggered by the Five Star Movement’s leader openly expressing support for the Gilets Jaunes. In reality, Giuseppe Conte was playing it by ear, while the two others were determined to go the opposite direction. In any case, his credibility in Italy and abroad was quite low, while on the contrary, the government coalition enjoyed widespread support from the Italian public opinion.

Everything changed in the summer of 2019. Matteo Salvini headed to break the government agreement, surfing the wave of his popularity in the polls. In the spring of European elections, Lega Nord obtained more than 34% of the vote, while the rival Five Star Movement suffered a heavy defeat with only 17% of the vote, (almost half of its score in the legislative elections of the previous year). In addition, he exerted strong pressure on the President of the Republic to dissolve the Chambers and call for early elections as soon as possible. He could already see himself taking over Giuseppe Conte’s position. However, on August 20, 2019, Conte stunned his audience and the millions of Italians in front of their television screens, in an extraordinary session of the Senate convened to consider a motion of no confidence tabled by the League. He firmly lectured Matteo Salvini on constitutional law and harshly criticized the policy pursued by Salvini for months. He then announced his resignation, which made it impossible to vote the motion of no confidence. During the following three weeks, he led the way in reforming a government based on a different parliamentary majority and in doing so, saved his position, even as the negotiations had started with the Democratic Party leaders. This made the appointment of another President of the Council a sine qua non condition for their participation in the new coalition.

This time around, Conte showed real magisterium. Imposing his line on to the weak and leaderless Democratic Party, and to the Five Star Movement which was now in the midst of a crisis, he succeeded in forming a new government moulded by his own hand. This sent a signal of appeasement to European leaders and leaders of the European Commission, who welcomed these all the more willingly as they feared a Lega Nord victory in the event of an anticipated election in the autumn. But this new government, like the President of the Council, was hardly popular among Italians, who clearly condemn the change in alliance.

It is then that Italy is hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic, especially in Lombardy. The President of the Council immediately and conspicuously positions himself on the front line.

It is then that Italy is hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic, especially in Lombardy. The management of this health crisis constitutes the second great moment of revelation of Giuseppe Conte's personality, after the previous summer’s political episode. The President of the Council immediately and conspicuously positions himself on the front line. Continually communicating, in particular via Facebook and regular press conferences, he governs by means of decree-laws from the President of the Council, refrains from convening Parliament, only doing so when forced to by the opposition and the majority parties. He imposed a lockdown, first localized, on February 22, later extended to the entire peninsula on March 9. He announced colossal sums of money to support the businesses and individuals most impacted by the crisis. He vehemently condemned, as had done President Mattarella in mid-March, the unfortunate words of the European Central Bank President declaring that the Bank could not do much, or Ursula von der Leyen showing a lack of empathy for the tragedy that Italy is living. Furthermore, together with Emmanuel Macron and Pedro Sanchez, he pushed to obtain aid from the European Union, though still under negotiation and not corresponding exactly to the coronabonds that Giuseppe Conte had wanted. He negotiated the deconfinement well, after convening a general assembly on the economy that brought together multiple social actors and European personalities to determine the priorities for public action. Despite mixed results, the initiative put him at the center of attention.

Giuseppe Conte has since enjoyed a remarkable popularity, never experienced before by his recent predecessors. Moreover, he benefits from unambiguous support from the Catholic Church, whose statements still count even as it has a weaker hold on society than it used to. His image has been restored in the European Union, or at least in Brussels, Paris, Berlin, Madrid and Lisbon. It is not so much the case with North, Center and East European countries who regard both Italy and France as spendthrift and irresponsible states. Giuseppe Conte's turnaround appears to be spectacular. Still, multiple nuances complicate this seemingly monochrome painting.

In reality, what Giuseppe Conte has achieved is not as novel as most commentators claim. In the face of natural disasters, especially earthquakes, history shows that more often than not, Prime Ministers have played a pre-eminent and decisive role. Conte, like others before him, has relied heavily on the Protezione Civile, or the Civil Defence, an efficient and experienced body, very popular among Italians.

Besides, Conte's actions don’t override the obstacles he has encountered, the crucial questions still unresolved and the problems he has created. Giuseppe Conte acted in response to Covid-19 with support from a great number of expert groups, to the extent that politics seemed to take a back seat in favour of science. Tensions arose between the President of the Council in Rome, tending towards maximum centralization of decisions to curb the pandemic, and the regions that have jurisdiction over health. This was indeed true with those led by Lega members, such as Lombardy and Veneto, but also, albeit to a lesser extent, with Emilia-Romagna, whose President is a member of the Democratic Party. The support measures announced by Rome are slow to materialize and often get bogged down in the mysteries of a plethoric and inefficient administrative apparatus, causing chaos and discontent. Following new announcements by the European Union, the government questioned the need to resort to the European Stability Mechanism, which was rejected by the Lega and Fratelli d'Italia. Moreover, the executive is struggling to propose a program of reforms, not only to cushion the shock of the Covid-19 crisis, but also to tackle, at last, the long list of structural problems affecting Italy, such as anaemic growth, low productivity and enormous public debt. It is even more important considering that the measures taken to address the effects of the pandemic could amount to nearly 156% of GDP, with the deficit now exceeding 10%. To the list of Italy’s structural problems we can then also add the resulting abysmal backlog in research and innovation, the necessary reform of public administration, the deficiency of many public infrastructures, etc. The powerful employers' organization, Confindustria, initially expressed harsh criticism of the government's policy, which did not allow for a real economic recovery and did not sufficiently help companies in their view. In the end, a fragile agreement seems to have been reached. The unions are concerned by the social situation worsening in the country.

Regard from the EU elites is no longer an asset in Italian politics, where public opinion remains mistrustful of the EU and, in fine, rather Eurosceptic.

Regard from the EU elites is no longer an asset in Italian politics, where public opinion remains mistrustful of the EU and, in fine, rather Eurosceptic. Finally, divergences between the Five Star Movement and the Democratic Party are coming to light across the spectrum of issues, weakening a government that is subject to virulent attacks from the opposition, especially on European funds, and shots fired by Matteo Renzi who still wants to make his voice heard.

For the moment, Giuseppe Conte's popularity remains high, although it has somewhat declined: he scores 60% of favourable opinion, and is still well ahead of his rivals, Matteo Salvini and Giorgia Meloni, the leader of the far-right Fratelli d'Italia party, and his allies Luigi Di Maio and Nicola Zingaretti of the Democratic Party. One may wonder whether his popularity will persist. When the pandemic peaked, it seemed more institutional than personal. Italians stood united behind the President of the Council, deaf to the demagogic discourse of Matteo Salvini saying one thing and then the opposite within a 24-hours cycle. The polls in the last few months have shown that Giuseppe Conte’s personal image has been consolidated. He is considered a responsible and determined man, who sits above party politics. However, the perils for him are plentiful. Giuseppe Conte risks paying dearly for the economic and social crisis that is looming with the new school year. His priority is to work on recovery. But differences with Confindustria and the unions persist. And ensions are extremely strong between the Ministry of Public Education in Rome, the regions and the teachers' unions, over the conditions for the start of the school year. Moreover, he is sitting on an ejection seat. As has been said, Lega Nord and Fratelli d'Italia continue to wage a real guerrilla war against him, taking it as far as organizing street demonstrations. These parties are alarmed by the risks that Giuseppe Conte would pose to democracy, since he has obtained from the Senate an extension of the state of emergency until October 15. The greater part of the majority, as well as legal and constitutional experts also criticized this provision. More generally, manoeuvres, often on the initiative of Matteo Renzi, are being undertaken by the majority to eventually get rid of him, and Conte still does not have an elected representative or a political party to rely on. Polls show that he could secure an electoral base if he entered the political competition alone, or if he became the leader of the Five Star Movement, though there is no consensus within the party on that. In doing so, he would move away from his image of being above party politics. In addition, Giuseppe Conte should meditate on Mario Monti’s experience, who equally enjoyed strong support as President of the Council before he was defeated when he founded his movement and embarked on the 2013 election campaign. In short, Giuseppe Conte's political future remains uncertain.

This uncertainty could however dissipate with the next elections. On September 20 and 21, Italians will be called to the polls for a referendum vote on the reduction of the number of members of parliament and for municipal and regional elections. The outcome of these consultations will certainly have an impact on Italian political life and will clarify the different political scenarios. But no matter which scenario will prevail in Italy – whether a change or the maintaining of the Chief Executive, the hypothetical possibility Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia’s integration into the parliamentary majority, the formation of a government of national unity, a government crisis followed by the dissolution of the Chambers, or the organization of early elections – it is indisputable that in this tragic period Italy is going through, there has been a surprise called Giuseppe Conte.



Illustration: David MARTIN for Institut Montaigne

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