(Bloomberg) — The popularity of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has triggered speculation he might become leader of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, with an opinion poll suggesting he could turn the party into Italy’s leading force.
Conte, a Florentine lawyer, was picked by Five Star to become premier in 2018 but still has no party membership. He has since shown surprising resilience in surviving an attempted power grab by Matteo Salvini of the anti-migrant League last year, forging a second coalition, and managing the coronavirus emergency.
Yet Conte’s personal support is fueling tensions within his administration, led by Five Star and the center-left Democratic Party. His allies have been sniping at Conte for spearheading a drive to draw up ambitious reforms to present to the European Union.
Conte would win the support of 24.3% of voters if he led Five Star, narrowly beating the League into second place at 23%, according to an Ipsos survey published Sunday by newspaper Corriere della Sera. That compares with a current leading score of 23.5% in the same poll for the League, and 17.1% for Five Star, down from 32% in the 2018 election.
At stake: an economy ravaged by a national lockdown that ended on June 3, as well as who decides how to spend — and gets the credit for obtaining — the Italian share of the bloc’s proposed 750-billion euro ($844 billion) economic recovery plan.
Conte’s task involves persuading investors nervous about Italy’s massive debt pile, with the central bank predicting the economy could shrink up to 13.1% this year, that the money won’t be misspent or lost in bureaucratic snarl-ups typical of the country’s byzantine public administration.
‘Lawyer of the People’
Senior Five Star figure Alessandro Di Battista was the first to publicly acknowledge the scenario of a Conte bid. If Conte wants to become party leader, “he has to sign up as a member of Five Star and take part in the next congress,” former lawmaker Di Battista told Rai television on Sunday.
The premier enjoys 61% personal support, slightly down from a peak of 66% in April when the country rallied around him during the virus emergency. The survey also showed that a party created by Conte would win 14.1% of the vote, stealing voters chiefly from his coalition allies and ranking fourth, with the League still on top.
The 55-year-old Conte, who described himself as a “lawyer of the people” when he first took power two years ago, has dismissed the idea of starting a new party. “It would be crazy on my part to dedicate even minimal energy to these thoughts,” Conte was quoted as saying Friday by newspaper la Repubblica.
Conte, depicted as France’s “Sun King” Louis XIV in a front-page caricature by Corriere on Saturday, has asserted his authority over fractious allies in both his coalitions as an independent mediator. Stepping into the party-political arena could tarnish that aura.
But the very idea has his allies worried. They have stepped up their not-so-friendly fire while vowing there is no alternative to the coalition. Lawmakers have grumbled about Conte giving them no advance notice of his decision to host a marathon nine days of talks with ministers, EU chiefs, business and finance leaders.
The forum at a Renaissance villa in Rome kicked off Saturday with figures including European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde, Bank of Italy Governor Ignazio Visco and EU Commissioner for Economic Affairs Paolo Gentiloni.
The reform plan for the EU that Conte is working on prioritizes boosting public and private investment especially on infrastructure, as well as speeding up the state bureaucracy and boosting renewable energy sources.
Conte also has to contend with an investigation by prosecutors in the northern city of Bergamo over the failure to isolate two nearby towns in early March as the virus spread. Conte, who is not under investigation, testified to prosecutor Maria Cristina Rota on Friday. Conte and regional chiefs have blamed each other.
Whether the premier can draw up a plan that convinces the EU — and manages to actually implement it when so many previous administrations have failed — will partly depend on whether his lawyerly mediation skills can overcome the envy of his allies.
(Updates with Di Battista remark in seventh paragraph.)
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